After YouTube boycott, Google pulls ads from more types of offensive content

Google is pulling display ads from being placed alongside a wider range of content on YouTube and other sites, in the wake of a spike of criticism that its automatic, programmatic advertising seemingly cannot stop mainstream brands from appearing alongside extremist and offensive material.

Last week a number of brands and publishers in Europe said they would pull advertising from Google’s network after their adverts were revealed to be being displayed alongside content such as videos promoting terrorism and anti-Semitism — a long-standing issue with online ad networks that is arguably coming to a head now given rising concern about extremist movements using online channels to spread divisive messaging and build influence among voters in democratic societies.

In response to criticism last week from advertisers, including the U.K. government, the Guardian newspaper and French ad giant Havas, Google said it would be expanding controls to give them more say over where their ads appear on YouTube and the Google Display Network.

More brands have since joined the boycott.

Google is now providing more detail on its response — and says it’s already started making changes, evidently hoping to stem the flow of brands away from its ad network. Chief business officer Philipp Schindler writes today that Google has “already begun ramping up changes” in three areas: its ad policies; enforcement of the policies; and new controls for advertisers.

“Recently, we had a number of cases where brands’ ads appeared on content that was not aligned with their values. For this, we deeply apologize,” he writes. “We know that this is unacceptable to the advertisers and agencies who put their trust in us. That’s why we’ve been conducting an extensive review of our advertising policies and tools, and why we made a public commitment last week to put in place changes that would give brands more control over where their ads appear.”

Among the changes Schindler covers in the blog is what he describes as “a tougher stance on hateful, offensive and derogatory content.”

And not just for ad display purposes; the suggestion is Google will be removing more types of offensive content from YouTube entirely — a tacit admission that hosting such content is becoming increasingly problematic for a company that has historically sat firmly in the U.S. “free speech” camp, yet which finds itself in the political firing line more and more, accused of helping spread hate online by providing a platform plus financial incentives for content intended to expand societal divisions.

In Germany the government is even considering new legislation to set standards for social media companies to promptly remove hate speech content from their platforms — with the country last week accusing internet companies of failing to act swiftly enough on user complaints. (Although, in that instance, Google was commended for improved responses to user complaints about illegal content on YouTube, versus Facebook and Twitter being criticized for getting worse at swiftly handling complaints.)

“We know advertisers don’t want their ads next to content that doesn’t align with their values. So starting today, we’re taking a tougher stance on hateful, offensive and derogatory content,” writes Google’s Schindler today. “This includes removing ads more effectively from content that is attacking or harassing people based on their race, religion, gender or similar categories. This change will enable us to take action, where appropriate, on a larger set of ads and sites.

“Finally, we won’t stop at taking down ads. The YouTube team is taking a hard look at our existing community guidelines to determine what content is allowed on the platform — not just what content can be monetized.”

He says Google will also be tightening safeguards for ad display pertaining to its YouTube Partner Program.

Among the new tools for advertisers that Google says it will be introducing in the “coming days and months” are:

  • stricter default settings for ads so they are less likely to appear beside “potentially objectionable content,” as Google puts it — with brands having to actively opt in to advertise on “broader types of content if they choose”
  • new account-level controls to make it easier for advertisers to exclude specific sites and channels from all of their AdWords for Video and Google Display Network campaigns, and enabling them to manage brand safety settings across all their campaigns “with a push of a button”
  • additional controls aimed at making it easier for brands to exclude “higher risk content and fine-tune where they want their ads to appear”

Google also says it will be beefing up resources, accelerating reviews and giving advertisers and agencies “more transparency and visibility” — with expanded availability of video-level reporting to all advertisers “in the coming months.”

The company says it will be hiring “significantly” more staff to handle the issue, as well as developing additional tools — saying it will seek to apply AI and machine learning to “increase our capacity to review questionable content for advertising.”

Advertisers with complaints about where their ads are appearing will also have access to a “new escalation path to make it easier for them to raise issues” in the future — with Google also claiming it will soon be able to resolve these cases “in less than a few hours.”

“We believe the combination of these new policies and controls will significantly strengthen our ability to help advertisers reach audiences at scale, while respecting their values,” adds Schindler. “We will continue to act swiftly to put these new policies and processes in place across our ad network and YouTube. But we also intend to act carefully, preserving the value we currently provide to advertisers, publishers and creators of all sizes. In the end, there’s nothing more important to Google than the trust we’ve built amongst our users, advertisers, creators and publishers. Brand safety is an ongoing commitment for us, and we’ll continue to listen to your feedback.”

We’ve reached out to Google with questions. At the time of writing the company had not responded but a spokeswomen told Bloomberg the timing and implementation of the new policies is still being set. In terms of granularity, she added that eventually Google plans to disable ads based on the tighter criteria on individual web pages rather than entire publications.