What is behind Google’s secret ad blocking policy?

Illustration by Sarah Mazzetti

When Google decided in May to stop accepting online ads for short-term, super-high-cost personal loans called payday loans, some questioned whether the company was acting more like an editor with editorial control than as a publisher. a supposedly neutral search engine.

Now that Google’s policy has taken effect, it’s worth asking: how much of a gatekeeper should the company be, judging which online ads are okay and which aren’t? And if the world’s largest internet search engine has to be selective about accepting ads, where does it draw the line?

The same questions could apply to Microsoft and Yahoo, which refuse to serve ads for certain types of sensitive content (but still advertise payday loans). Baidu, the world’s second-largest search engine, has struggled with these issues since the start of the year, when its practice of promoting medical lists without checking them sparked outrage over a tragedy: a young man with of cancer died after receiving ineffective treatment from a hospital he found through a Baidu ad. The outcry sparked an investigation by China’s internet regulator, which ordered Baidu to review its ads and remove those promoting unlicensed medical providers.

University of Maryland law professor Frank Pasquale says Google has tried to have it both ways: Sometimes it comes across as just a utility and just a conduit for customer ads, but others both it presents itself as a content provider who can and should exercise control over the advertisements it serves.

“Whenever Google is accused of having encouraged or authorized copyright infringement or defamation, it says, ‘We are just [connecting people] like the phone company does, and you wouldn’t sue the phone company for it, ”says Pasquale. “But when people say, ‘If you’re a common carrier [utility], you should take all the ads, ”Google will say,“ No, we’re like a newspaper and we should have free rein in what we publish. “

With the payday loan announcements, Google presents itself as the vigilant online gatekeeper. The company said it banned advertisements to protect its users because “research has shown these loans can lead to unaffordable payments and high default rates.” (Google declined to comment for this story beyond saying that it constantly reviews its AdWords policies and updates them “as necessary”.)

Google also appears to have been influenced by advocacy from a large coalition of civil rights, digital rights and financial reform organizations. In late 2015, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and other groups sent reports to Google detailing the abuses that often accompany payday loans, including fraud, unauthorized transactions, and long-term debt. “We said, ‘This is a problem, and we want to tell you about it,'” said Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law, who participated in the awareness campaign. “There have been long conversations with Google and a lot of that research has come to their attention over the course of a few months. “

An ongoing payday loan investigation by the US government’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau may have heightened Google’s interest in abusive lending practices.

Consumers may not realize it, but Google – and other ad-supported search engines – have been making editorial decisions about the types of ads they’ll run for years. These companies were granted the right to reject advertisements they considered objectionable in 2007, when a Delaware district court ruled that constitutional guarantees of free speech did not apply to search engines because they are for-profit companies and not “state actors”. The ruling cited previous cases that upheld the right of newspapers to decide which ads to run.

Google currently bans ads for “dangerous”, “dishonest” and “offensive” content, such as recreational drugs, weapons and tobacco products; false documents and academic cheating services; and the paraphernalia of hate groups. Google also limits ads for content it deems legally or culturally sensitive, such as adult, gambling, and political content; alcoholic beverages; and health care and medicine. It may require additional information from these advertisers and limit placement to certain geographic locations.

Legal experts aren’t always comfortable with Google taking on this role. While Pasquale of the University of Maryland supports Google’s decision to add online payday loans to its shortlist as a benefit to consumers, University of Connecticut law professor James Kwak, think Google is going too far. Given the company’s dominance – it is estimated to have 55% of the $ 86.2 billion global search ad market – Kwak believes Google is essentially wielding regulatory power when it bans certain ads and should. be subject to scrutiny on the grounds that it may violate First Amendment protections on free speech.

“The question is, ‘When does something have so much control over the dissemination of ideas that it should be treated as part of government?’ », Explains Kwak. “It’s a company with tremendous power that uses that power to affect other industries. “

Now that Google has agreed to ban a category of ads, in part based on community advocacy, will people expect it to block other ads that harm audiences? And since Google is committed to monitoring its payday loan ads, shouldn’t it take responsibility for the other potentially unethical ads it runs?

Consider colleges and for-profit services for student debt relief. Google has not instituted any special regulations for such ads, although the two entities are largely supposed to capitalize on consumer confusion and hurt more people than they help.

Logan Koepke, an analyst at Upturn, a technology law and policy consultancy that released an influential 2015 report on online payday lending, believes Google’s move could set a precedent for consumer advocates seeking to shape corporate advertising policies.

Some people are not comfortable with Google as the final arbiter on these matters. Kwak, for his part, would like to see more transparency surrounding such decisions. He suggests that Google hire a group of economists or social scientists to identify deceptive products being advertised online, or perhaps work with the CFPB to determine which financial products are the most exploitative.

Pasquale also promotes some form of public or government control to ensure that such decisions are made in the public interest and not for commercial reasons favoring Google. This is relevant to the issue of payday loans, as some people have speculated that the ban would benefit LendUp, an online lender that describes itself as an “alternative to payday loans” and is funded by Google Ventures, the investment division of Google’s parent company, Alphabet.

LendUp, however, stressed that its ads would be subject to Google’s advertising ban, as would those of other lenders.

Bedoya understands why Google’s influence and reach make people uncomfortable, but he says, “The reality is that these companies had enormous power before this decision and will have enormous power afterwards. The key is to encourage them to use their position in a way that is not prejudicial.

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