Mar 23rd 2017

I don’t buy it…

…and apparently neither do Marks & Spencer, Vodafone, Sky, HSBC, Lloyds, Royal Bank of Scotland, McDonald’s, L’Oréal, Audi, Sainsbury’s, Argos, the BBC and the British Government. Google’s seemingly laissez-faire approach to its operations may finally be catching up with the Internet giant after some significant organisations pulled advertising budget from YouTube.

Nobody should be surprised to learn that it isn’t OK, in the eyes of most reasonable people, to be advertising next to extremist material. The end result is that those who do are indirectly funding those extremists and without entering into an argument to define what is extreme and what isn’t, this is not a good thing. On that point, there doesn’t seem to be much of an argument, but where does the responsibility lie?

For my part I’m surprised it has taken so long for some of the big brands to get off their collective backsides and do something about it. YouTube advertising, despite all the talk of precise targeting and the enormous technical resources available, still seems to be little more than ‘spray and pray’. It might be spray and pray that works – the advertisers keep coming back and so presumably see a consistent return on their investment – but the fact remains that we can all point to numerous examples of entirely inappropriate targeting on YouTube.

In that environment, it’s reasonable to ask why the brands involved haven’t been carrying out more effective due diligence. They are very careful where their ads are placed in newspapers and on television but when it comes to the Internet, no such care seems to be applied. Programmatic platforms, like Google’s, fundamentally change the mechanics of advertising. They effectively remove the brand from the actual content and instead, present a range of geographic, demographic and content categories to choose from. It’s impossible to know precisely what you are advertising against until it happens because a machine has taken control of the placement.

That doesn’t absolve brands of responsibility and they really shouldn’t be relying on another brand spotting the issue (which seems to be the case for most of the companies that have pulled their ads) or on a consumer bringing it to their attention. It’s too late by that stage, the money’s already in the pocket of the extremist (and Google).

That brings me on to Google’s position in this and it reminds me a little of parenting. Now, I don’t claim to be the world’s best father and my children will no doubt attest to the fact that I’ve made some enormous mistakes along the way (and probably scarred them for life), but I did teach them at least one important lesson in their teenage years. It’s the same lesson my father taught me and it’s that there comes a point in your life when you have to take responsibility for your own actions. The teenage Google doesn’t yet appear to have reached that epiphany.

This is evident in the statements Google has made in response to this issue:

“…in the vast majority of cases, our policies work as intended…”

“We accept that we don’t always get it right, and that sometimes, ads appear where they should not.”

“…apologise to our partners and advertisers who might have been affected by their ads appearing on controversial content.”

“I apologise in the instances where that may have happened…”

“…pennies, not pounds…”

The language is clearly designed to position this as a minor hiccup rather than a significant problem and gives you little confidence that this is a company that actually wants to do something about it. What Google hasn’t done is perhaps more telling than what it has said in public. It hasn’t, as far as we know, paid back any of the ‘ill-gotten gains’, it hasn’t truly acknowledged that there is a fundamental issue to be addressed and it hasn’t announced a wholesale review of the platform. In short, it hasn’t taken responsibility for its actions.

I’ve been involved with Internet based businesses for more years than I care to remember and I’ve always taken the position that the Internet should be free of regulation wherever possible. It is a conduit for the flow of information and regulating that flow artificially is akin to building walls between countries.

That’s my position on the Internet itself but it isn’t my position on companies that exploit the Internet for commercial gain, reach a position of market dominance, and return the profits to a small group of shareholders. I don’t object to the model itself but those companies shouldn’t expect to operate in an environment in which they alone create the rules of engagement.

Google apparently approves of the status quo it has established. Whilst it hides under a laughably arrogant ‘don’t be evil’ motto (by whose definition?), Google uses its absolute market dominance to dictate how companies, organisations and individuals act and interact online. The teenager is currently tooled up with as much firepower as it is possible to muster, it isn’t taking responsibility for its actions and it seems immune to entreaties to change.

Be afraid, be very afraid.