Google's AdSense has told San Francisco news outlet The SF Appeal that it has three days to remove editorial content that violates its advertising policy.
SF Appeal Publisher Eve Batey said, "Your advertisers shouldn't be telling you what to cover in your publication." She added, "that Google seems to think that it's OK to send a vague email like this is pretty staggering, and seems to suggest that the company is not the friend to journalism they claim they are."
Update: Google's spokesperson responded to this article saying that despite Ms. Batey's email from AdWords telling her otherwise (included in this article), Ms. Batey and ZDNet are incorrect to believe that AdWords is requiring content to be changed.
Google's spokesperson clarified that this news website must follow the Google AdWords adult content policy.
Google said this morning via email, "We don't comment on specific publishers, but below is a general statement. Also here is more on our adult content policies. Your headline is inaccurate -- we don't require publishers to change their content. They cannot run ads against content that is not in line with the policies (so they could take the ads off those pages and still run them elsewhere on the site)."
Ms. Batey responded, "Given the email sent to us by Google, then, Google's remark that "they could take the ads off those pages and still run them elsewhere on the site" isn't accurate."
"That said, this response does a terrible job of even pretending to address the question posed, nor the issues raised in your report."
If Google were, say, a major grocery store chain, and the major grocery store chain told a television network that it was likely going to pull its advertising from the network because it violated the grocery store's standards, then sent a vague list (none of which appears applicable to the network's content) of things that violate those standards, we would all be talking about what out-of-touch fools the grocery store chain is, and how it seemed like they were trying to bully a network into changing its content.
Despite Google's remarks, the email we received from Google read "please be aware that the URL above is just an example and that the same violations may exist on other pages of this website or other sites that you own. To reduce the likelihood of future warnings from us, we suggest that you review all your sites for compliance."
It appears that to AdWords, a website's content is up for re-classification as porn anytime -- and this isn't good news for online journalism.
Many news websites use AdSense for backfill, including majors like Hearst, as well as smaller indie news blogs like those in the Gothamist network, The Awl, and others.
After 12 years of peacefully doing business with sites that have content with sex in it, Google's move decimated an entire advertising sector overnight.
Ms. Batey told ZDNet, "Arbitrary emails like this certainly seem to say that the advertiser (in this case, Google) thinks it's OK to dictate what we publish. This is a big deal, when we hear that an individual advertiser is 'pulling advertising' from a publication or program over its content. So why isn't the same hue and cry being raised when Google does it?"
Google emailed SF Appeal stating, "Google ads may not be placed on pages with adult or mature content. Please either remove the content from your site or remove ads from the violating pages [and] please be aware that the URL above is just an example and that the same violations may exist on other pages of this website or other sites that you own."
The article in violation is a sex column, called "The Sexual Manifesto." The column's topic cited in Google's example URL is flatulence.
Ms. Batey said, "Look, I'm not arguing that a column about flatulence is the height of journalism (though it is a good column!). But this email is so non-specific: what are we supposed to remove? I don't know, and Google's not telling us."
Monday's email from Google to The SF Appeal read:
This is a warning message to alert you that there is action required to bring your AdSense account into compliance with our AdSense program policies. We’ve provided additional details below, along with the actions to be taken on your part.
In June, Google enforced conservative changes to its AdWords policies against advertising placed on pages with "mature" content -- but Adwords' encroachment on independent media sites suggests that Google is reaching further with its content controls than a porn ban.
One of many advertisers also caught in the Google AdWords sex purge is sexual health organization "Keep A Breast Foundation." The youth-based breast cancer awareness organization educates and engages young people on how to lower their risk for breast cancer.
Users whose only gateway to the Internet is through a Google product are only seeing filtered news, search results, art, health information and content: Few users are aware of just how censored their Google products are.
It's also now clear that few Internet users know just how much their news websites and local blogs are censored by Google, as well.
When this crucial element of free speech and expression is minimized (and in some cases, removed or prohibited altogether) because the utility controlling the content -- in this case, Google -- simply doesn't like the topic, we find ourselves mired in a new, deeply insidious flavor of censorship.
ZDNet has reached out to Google for comment and have updated this article accordingly: Google's entire statement is below. Disclosure: Violet Blue is a freelance reporter for several outlets, including The SF Appeal.
Update Tuesday November 11, 9:45am PST: A Google spokesperson told ZDNet:
We don't comment on specific publishers, but below is a general statement. Also here is more on our adult content policies: https://support.google.com/adsense/answer/1348688?ctx=as2&rd=1
Your headline is inaccurate -- we don't require publishers to change their content. They cannot run ads against content that is not in line with the policies (so they could take the ads off those pages and still run them elsewhere on the site).
Statement: All publishers that sign up for AdSense agree to the Terms and Conditions of the service and a set of policies designed to ensure the quality of the network for users, advertisers and other publishers. When we discover violations, we take swift action, and notify the affected publisher. In many cases, publishers can address content policy violations by removing ads from the specific pages in question, while still running them elsewhere on their site.