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How Google AdSense Censors the News

The Internet's largest ad network won't support sites that show what happened at Abu Ghraib—but company reps say they're only enforcing the rules.
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Is Google trying to censor news it deems “inappropriate” for public consumption?

That’s what the editors of several news websites are asking after recent tussles with Google AdSense, the online advertising behemoth that generates revenue for publishers by placing third-party “pay per click” or “pay per impression” ads on their sites. Publishers need only sit back and collect the checks, which can add up to thousands of dollars a month, depending on traffic.

AdSense brings in about $13 billion a year to Google’s coffers, about 24 percent of its overall revenue. According to its fourth-quarter earnings report in January, Google earned $3.72 billion in the last months of FY2014 from ads appearing on its network partners’ websites. In 2011, the company said it paid 68 percent of ad revenue back to the sites that participate in AdSense. All added up, that’s a lot of cash.

Until, of course, a publisher runs afoul of Google’s Terms and Conditions. Google says it tries to guarantee its advertisers that their ads will only be displayed on “family-friendly” websites. That includes a strict prohibition on “violent content,” a rule the company says is applied across the board—and is apparently blind to context.

“If your site has content which you wouldn’t be comfortable viewing at work or with family members around, then it probably isn’t an appropriate site for Google ads,” according to Google’s guidance for “Adult Content.”

But “family-friendly” is a vague standard that can lead to poor, context-free judgements about content, as some publishers, including The American Conservative, suspect after recent brushes against those Terms and Conditions.

Daniel McCarthy, editor of The American Conservative, says that in January, Google AdSense asked that its ads be removed from a January 2012 story featuring a commentary by this author that included a photograph of U.S. soldiers urinating on Afghan corpses, as well as a photograph of abuses that had occurred at the Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraq War (specifically, the infamous photo of Pfc. Lynndie England dragging an Iraqi by a leash).

“Because ads are displayed on our site according to a general template, the only way we could satisfy Google’s demand was by removing AdSense from all of our article pages,” McCarthy explained, adding that “We still feature AdSense on our homepage and blogs, for now.” How much longer may depend on just how indiscriminately Google enforces its rules.

“There’s a chilling effect here,” McCarthy says, getting to the heart of journalists’ obligation to report the news, including disturbing images that the public needs to see. A corporate gatekeeper that treats news like offensive or “adult” content risks stifling free speech.

“Advertisers have always been free to withdraw support from a news organization when they’re embarrassed by its reporting, but Google is more than just an advertiser: AdSense is the Internet’s largest advertising network, and the only reason it’s the Internet’s largest ad network is because of Google’s market power as a provider of search engine and other services integral to most Americans’ web use,” says McCarthy.

“So when Google imposes restraints upon what news organization can report, it’s not acting like an auto manufacturer that withdraws advertising from ’60 Minutes’ in retaliation for an expose. It’s more akin to CBS itself telling the news program that it can’t report anything that wouldn’t be suitable for children’s television.”

Google as an Internet gatekeeper is no fantasy. Since its founding as a scrappy start-up amid the tech boom of 1998, it has grown to dominate the online ad and search markets. The company has drawn the attention of regulators, who want to rein in what they see as monopolistic behavior. Google in turn has spent millions of dollars a year lobbying Congress. Not all of that spending has been purely self-interested, however: the Internet giant, whose motto has long been “Don’t be evil,” has weighed in against what it calls unnecessary government surveillance on the net, and the company is aware of the censorship risks that overly broad regulations can pose.

One wonders then why AdSense won’t make a distinction between “Faces of Death” and the analysis delivered by The American Conservative when it comes to offensive violent content, which Google describes in its Terms and Conditions as anything with “bloodshed, fight scenes and gruesome or freak accidents.” Publishers, Google says, “are responsible for every page on which their ad code appears and for screening any text, images, videos or other media which will appear on a page with Google ads.”

Eric Garris, editor and founder of Antiwar.com, reports that AdSense contacted him on March 18 to say that his news site was suspended from the AdSense network due to pages that violated its terms of service, after Antiwar.com had been with AdSense for nearly 10 years. (Full disclosure: the author is a former contributor to Antiwar.com)

“I woke up Wednesday morning, went to the computer, looked at the front page, and there were no ads. Just three big blank spaces where the ads should have been,” he told TAC. “Then I went to my email and there was the mail from Google AdSense.”

The offense? Two pages that contained a series of graphic Abu Ghraib photographs first seen on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” featuring U.S. military servicemembers torturing Iraqi detainees, putting them in naked stress positions, frightening them with dogs. Two show servicemembers making the “thumbs up” sign over the bodies of dead prisoners.

These pictures are offensive, but that was the point—their release in 2004 caused an international uproar about U.S. treatment of detainees and soldiers’ conduct in war, spawned a number of high-level investigations, and led to lawsuits that are still playing out in our highest court. Without the pictures, would the outrage have been as fierce, the response as swift? The images are part of the historical record, and they made a difference.

“This is a matter of principle,” says Jillian York, Director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Seeing that Google has become such a significant part of what we see and do online and in the public sphere, she says, “I think the company has an obligation to protect free speech and they are not, by and large, doing that.”

When contacted by TAC, AdSense spokesperson Andrea Faville said she could not discuss individual cases but that the Terms and Services are quite clear about prohibited content, which all publishers agree to at the onset. “The reason for the policies, really, is to protect everyone,” she said.

“It is not a judgment call in terms of the value of the content,” according to Faville. She says Google polices its more than two million partner sites for potential offenses with “a combination of technical and human review,” suggesting there are bots set to specific algorithms sniffing out offenders, then actual people at Google who determine whether action needs to be taken.

Garris and others wonder why the red flags regarding the Abu Ghraib photos now, after they’ve been online so many years already. “I understand that Google wants to protect their advertisers and that is a reasonable thing, but what they were objecting to had been on our site for 11 years and they never complained before,” Garris told TAC.

Gawker’s Alex Pareene followed the exchanges between Antiwar.com and AdSense for a week, expressing incredulity that the ad giant couldn’t discern between news and gratuitous stuff like this. He says the incident should “worry publishers of controversial political content who rely on Google for revenue. It looks to be much too easy for a malicious complaint, a faulty algorithm, simple human misinterpretation or overeager application of policy to cost a publisher a lot of money.

“The result could be a very real chilling effect on independent journalism.”

Especially since it seems that once the process gets over to the “human review,” things get much more subjective. Garris says Antiwar.com was reinstated after he got in touch by e-mail with AdSense public relations. But then AdSense came back and said the deal was off because of a May 2014 Antiwar story that featured an Associated Press photo showing a pile of dead people allegedly killed by Ukrainian government soldiers.

Garris says he was willing to work with Google on the issue but soon got the sense he was being painted into a corner. “I think what they really might be trying to do is edit us so we either become less objectionable in their minds, or just get rid of us.”

In their last exchange, Garris asked Google PR rep John Brown if this photo of Yemenis carrying a blanket, ostensibly with an injured person inside, “would be objectionable.” Brown, according to the email provided by Garris, responded: “A good rule of thumb is if it would be okay for a child in any region of the world to see that image, it’s acceptable.”

What would happen if Google really applied this “rule of thumb”? Suddenly, all of the significant war photography of the last century seems at risk, like this grim view of Omaha Beach after the D-Day invasion. What about these images from World War I, Vietnam—could the goal of keeping advertisers happy eventually scrub the historical canon of war’s ugly realities, leaving only a bloodless, “family friendly” Madison Avenue vision intact?

For the last 70 years, entire generations have been educated about and sensitized to the horrors of the Holocaust with photography. Consider what will be lost in our mission to “never forget” if scenes like this are deemed unfit to appear on ad-supported sites.

“No newspaper could operate in the brick-and-mortar world under the constraints that Google imposes on its clients,” says McCarthy.

“Does Google consider newspapers inappropriate for the family table?” he wonders. “They certainly can contain images and stories you wouldn’t want the youngest members of the family exposed to, but it’s the duty of a new organization to report such things, and it’s the duty of parents, not advertisers, to control when their children are exposed to harsh realities.”

Faville insists AdSense has nothing to do with making editorial judgments. “We are happy to work with any website that is compliant with our policies… we work with more than two million websites all over the world with all kinds of content. The team’s concern is if the content is in line with our policies or not.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.