Content Moderation 06/30/2020

The flare-up between Google and The Federalist

Chris Marchese
Chris Marchese Policy Counsel

The truth always comes out. And when it does, it’s up to us whether to believe it or reject it as “alternative facts” that inconveniently undermine the useful narratives we tell ourselves. 

Last week, a big flare-up between Google and The Federalist, a web magazine that publishes conservative commentary, stoked controversial claims that Google was conspiring to silence conservatives. The Federalists claimed that Google punished it for publishing views that Google found objectionable. Although Google denied this and this was not what really happened, the damage was already done: The Federalist’s (inaccurate) allegation made headlines and riled up conservative Twitter.

Here’s what really happened: Google was alerted that The Federalist was running Google Ads in violation of Google’s long-standing rule that requires third-party websites to keep ads away from potentially controversial content like user comments. The Federalist, however, placed Google Ads near its user-comments section, violating this rule. So Google informed The Federalist it needed to change the ad placement and gave the website several days to comply.

But that’s not what was reported. Instead, the conservative media wrote stories to heighten conservatives’ fear of online censorship. They claimed Google yanked ads from The Federalist to deprive the site of crucial advertising revenue (“demonetizing”) due to its conservative opinions and readership.

In reality, this entire debacle was about location, location, location. Google simply does not allow ads to be near content that would upset those placing ads using the service. Often, user comments on news sites can break Google’s ad rules, and Google will ask sites to move ads away from controversial content in order to continue having ads placed on their website. 

But even once the NBC story was amended and the internet understood Google’s warning was not punishment, some conservatives called Google a hypocrite. They argued because Google and its allies support Section 230, a federal law that clarifies websites are not liable for the content their users post, it can’t possibly hold a third party like The Federalist accountable for what that site’s users post.

If Google can hold a third party accountable for its content, then the government ought to be able to do the same to Google — the argument goes. But, this is misguided. The business relationship Google has with its ad partners is not a relationship between a government and its governed. Google cannot prosecute The Federalist. Nor can Google saddle it with fines.

Business-minded conservatives should also understand that Google’s customers include both advertisers and publishers–and has a strong financial incentive to keep both customers happy.

Advertisers don’t want their ads run during controversial television shows and digital advertisers don’t want their ads running alongside racist, homophobic, sexist, or otherwise objectionable content. Publishers, meanwhile, want to make as much money from advertising as possible without having to change their content. Google balances these expectations with its placement rule: Publishers get ads so long as they keep them away from the worst content, including anonymous commenters. 

Despite all this, it’s perfectly legitimate to criticize Google’s rule. Maybe the company should value standardless ad placement. But that’s not the decision Google made. And the government shouldn’t force Google to do otherwise. If others disagree with Google’s location rule, they’re free to use other services. Contrary to popular belief, digital advertising is a highly competitive market and platforms like The Federalist have multiple ad services to choose from. Google should not be forced to compromise its values–let alone do so at the expense of its income–simply because other websites would make different decisions.

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