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The flare-up between Google and The Federalist

Last summer’s big flare-up between Google and The Federalist, a web magazine that publishes conservative commentary, continues to stoke controversial allegations Google was conspiring to silence conservatives. The Federalist claimed Google punished it for publishing views Google found objectionable. Since then, conservatives on Twitter and elected lawmakers in multiple congressional hearings have coalesced around an incomplete (and false) narrative. 

In reality, Google never censored The Federalist; it fairly enforced its neutral standards for third-party advertising affiliations. An advertiser alerted Google that The Federalist was running Google Ads in violation of Google’s long-standing rule that requires third-party websites to keep those ads away from controversial content like user comments. The Federalist, however, placed Google Ads near its user-comments section, which included racist insults, violating this rule. So Google informed The Federalist it needed to change the ad placement and gave the website several days to comply. It also offered to help the site comply with the placement rule.

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

This entire debacle centers around issues about location, location, location. Google simply does not allow ads near unfiltered, potentially controversial content. Often, user comments on news sites can break Google’s ad rules and Google will ask sites to move ads away from controversial content to continue having ads placed on their website. This is done for business purposes: Google relies on advertising revenue to keep its products free—products we all love like Google Search, Drive, and Gmail. Because digital advertising is so competitive, Google must adhere to advertisers’ expectations that their content is kept separate from content harmful to their brands. 

Websites are free to have uncensored user comments and Google Ads, but only so long as the two are kept separate. Some sites, for example, require readers to click “See Comments” before user-generated comments appear. This standard practice complies fully with Google’s rules and proves popular with readers, who may not want to read unfiltered user commentary.

But even once mainstream news got the full story and the internet understood Google’s warning was not a punishment, some conservatives still called Google a hypocrite. They argued that because Google and its allies support Section 230, a federal law that clarifies websites are not liable for the content their users post, Google 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 should be able to hold Google accountable. Or so this misguided argument goes. The business relationship Google has with its ad partners is not a relationship between a government and its people. 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 thus has a strong financial incentive to keep both customers happy. Advertisers happily place ads on publishers’ websites so long as these ads are kept away from user-generated content. Publishers, meanwhile, get to make as much money from advertising as possible if they adhere to the placement rule.

Despite all this, it’s legitimate to criticize Google’s rule. Maybe the company should value unmoderated ad placement. But that’s not the decision Google made or that its advertisers want. 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, or they could just sell ad space on their site themselves. 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.

**This piece was originally published on June 30, 2020. We’ve adjusted and reworded the piece based on new information on September 22, 2020.