Apr 4th 2017

Those pesky journalists

A couple of weeks ago I penned a blog entry that was critical of both Google and major brands with regard to the shit storm surrounding ad placement on YouTube. Those brands had discovered their ads were being placed alongside extremist content and as a result, both Google and the brands concerned were, in effect, providing funding to the owners of that extremist content.

Nobody is suggesting that either Google or the brands were doing this knowingly but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve criticism. The brands ought to be exercising some due diligence by monitoring (much more closely) where their ads appear and Google has a responsibility to ensure it isn’t facilitating the funding of extremists.

Google’s latest comments, in a recent Recode interview with the company’s chief business officer, Philipp Schindler, suggest Google simply doesn’t understand how serious an issue this is. The following passage extracted from the Recode interview, in which Schindler is talking about the size of the problem, is very telling:

“It should always be smaller. It’s our responsibility to make it smaller. Let’s not take away from that. But remember, we’ve had that problem, at scale, for a long time. The whole industry [has], even traditional. The problem comes from the fact that somebody is aggressively putting it onto the front page.”

So, an acknowledgement that there is an issue and that it’s been going on for some time, but hang on a minute, “the problem comes from the fact that somebody is aggressively putting it onto the front page.” That statement, I believe, provides us with a unique insight into the way the ‘Google mind’ thinks. How else should we interpret it other than to conclude that Google would be happy to leave things as they are and simply find a way to shut up those pesky journalists (and others) who seek to question the fundamentals of this advertising model? It’s a staggering example of corporate arrogance.

I wonder if it has actually occurred to anyone at Google that lots of people actually do care about this issue, that the journalists covering the story are simply reflecting their strongly held views, and that they aren’t simply taking cheap shots at a ‘tall poppy’.

I don’t think any of us know how the issue will eventually play out however, from a communications perspective Google needs to think very carefully about the public statements its employees make. So far, it seems to have handled things very badly and few appear convinced that, of its own volition, it will do everything it reasonably can to address the shortcomings.

The vacuum of inaction is only likely to draw in greater scrutiny from Google’s customers, and from regulators. Perhaps that’s not a bad outcome in the circumstances.