Before getting to today’s post, two things:
1. Thanks to all the commenters whom I didn’t thank individually for their congratulations on my becoming a Full Professor. As one of my former students said on Facebook, he’s glad that I’m finally a full professor because he was getting tired of calling me Half Professor.
2. At the advice of many people, I decided to upgrade my operating system on my Mac to Yosemite. Big mistake. It was in the shop all day Thursday or Friday. So that’s why I didn’t post on Thursday or Friday.
My guess is that most of you have not followed what has been happening between Google and another web site I occasionally write for, www.antiwar.com. For the longer background, you can read about it in Dan Sanchez, “Don’t See Evil: Google’s boycott campaign against war photography and alternative media.”
One excerpt from Sanchez’s article:
On the morning of March 18, Eric Garris, founder and webmaster of the site, received a form email from Google AdSense informing him that all of Antiwar.com’s Google ads had been disabled. The reason given was that one of the site’s pages with ads on it displayed images that violated AdSense’s policy against “violent or disturbing content, including sites with gory text or images.”
Disclosure: I used to write regularly, and now I write sporadically, as “The Wartime Economist on antiwar.com. Also, Eric Garris, referred to above, is one of my favorite people in the world.
After Gawker publicized the incident, a Google employee stuck a conciliatory note. Then:
As instructed, Garris removed the code and submitted an appeal that very day. After such a friendly email from the PR guy, he hoped to see the ads restored the next morning. The following day, not only were the ads still gone, but there was yet another message from AdSense in his inbox, informing him that his appeal was rejected because yet another non-compliant page was found: this one a report on the war in Ukraine that included an image of dead rebel fighters. (Contrary to various reports, Antiwar.com’s ads were never even briefly restored.)
Go to the site yourself to read the Google person’s response.
Garris, not giving up, reached out again to Google to find out what kind of content was acceptable for antiwar.com to qualify for ads and the associated revenue from ads.
Now former antiwar.com writer Kelley Vlahos continues the story:
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?
Earlier in her article, Vlahos quotes Daniel McCarthy, editor of The American Conservative:
“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.
I think McCarthy’s “only reason” part is wrong. Google’s market power as a provider of search engine services is certainly very important. But it’s not the only reason. The other main reason, as Eric Garris told me in a phone call, is that Google made the process so seamless. It had not been that hard to comply with Google policies in the past, said Garris, and so the revenue that came from carrying Google customers’ ads was relatively easy money.
That’s no longer the case.
Here’s what is going on. Google faces a tradeoff. On the one hand, there are probably many advertisers, possibly the vast majority, who don’t want their ads to appear alongside pictures of blood and gore, people being tortured, etc. So by being careful that web sites where ads appear do not have such pictures, Google gets more ad revenue than otherwise. On the other hand, Google is upsetting a lot of people who see it as dictating content. This will cause some people to shun Google. I don’t know what the right margin is from a strictly profit-maximizing viewpoint. But I do see Google as taking a gamble. The choice it has made seems fairly safe. But if the upset spreads, there could be a role for another competitor.
Postscript: One thing that one should not accuse Google of doing is censoring. Vlahos’s title (I realize that authors don’t get to pick their own titles–but someone does) suggests that she or an editor thinks Google is censoring. The above-mentioned Daniel McCarthy gives an apt analogy between Google and CBS. In the Vlahos article, she quotes 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.”
CBS, in that case, wouldn’t be censoring. But it would be taking the kind of gamble that Google is taking.
To his credit, Sanchez does not accuse Google of censoring. He writes:
Now nobody is suggesting that Google should be forced to change its policy. Of course it has every right to refuse service to anyone for any reason. The issue is whether Google’s actions are shameful and corrupt, not whether they should be illegal.
I think he has it right. The “Don’t Be Evil” company has become the “Don’t See Evil” company.