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Leon Kaye headshot

Google's Robot Bureaucracy Shows Its Darker Side

By Leon Kaye

When Google launched its IPO (initial public offering) in 2004, it broadcasted its operating philosophy, “Don’t Be Evil.” In the stodgy world of corporate finance and investment banking, Google’s mantra elicited many an eye-roll within the world of corporate attorneys and accountants, who tend to favor previously used bland and insipid language to assuage potential investors while avoiding any legal trouble. In addition to Google’s promise, slathered on the opening page of its S-1 registration statement to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the company promised it was committed to “making the world a better place” and that it was not a conventional company.

The search engine quickly usurped competitors such as Yahoo!, and emerged as one of the world’s most recognizable and valuable companies. And true, the company is hardly conventional, as it has entered a bevy of ventures from driverless cars to clean energy investments. As the company, its stock price and influence expanded, Google eventually put its big-boy pants on and decided it had outgrown its “societal goals” mission statement. Then last year, as the company morphed into the holding company Alphabet (which almost no one uses), “Don’t Be Evil” became “Do the Right Thing.”

If you run a Web-based business or blog and thought it would be the right thing to score a few extra dollars by running Google AdSense on your site, however, Google’s bots appear to have taken the demise of “Don’t Be Evil” a little too literally.

First of all, let’s just face it: While some publications including Time magazine have given Google AdSense props as a way to make some extra cash, no site runs AdSense believing that it will raise significant funds for its operations. If you run a little rinky-dink site like mine, the occasional automated direct deposit from Google may pay for that year’s supply of chewing gum. For a larger media site, the amount is probably too petty to even contribute to the petty cash fund.

Which is why a recent nasty-gram from Google to TriplePundit sparked some giggles and a few horrified Emoji faces last week. The trouble started brewing when we received an automated email about our coverage of PETA’s rejected Super Bowl advertisement from over five years ago. According to Google, our Michigan-based author flouted sensible Midwestern values by describing why PETA's ad was pulled. NBC requested PETA remove several scenes from the ad before resubmitting it for consideration. Several of these requests included language Google also, apparently, found objectionable, such as:

  • “Licking a pumpkin”

  • Allegedly copying prose from supermarket checkout stand romance novels (are they still around?) such as “touching her breast with her hand while eating broccoli" (perhaps they sell such novels at Whole Foods after all?)

  • And other suggestive words and phrases such as “between legs,” “rubbing pelvic region,” “screwing,” “chew on this” and the dreaded vajajay word.

Google, it seems is concerned with TriplePundit's word and video choice to describe NBC's beef with Peta lo these many years ago.   According to Google, the violation probably stemmed from two embedded videos, which, incidentally, do not load anymore. As the stern warning admonished us:
"Google ads may not be placed on pages with adult or any kinds of non family-safe content. This includes, but is not limited to, pages with images or videos containing:

  • Strategically covered nudity

  • Sheer or see-through clothing

  • Lewd or provocative poses

  • Close-ups of breasts, buttocks, or crotches

Content of this nature is considered to be in violation of policy, even when placed inside articles which are innocuous. Please note that to fix this violation, you need not censor the content itself, but you should stop placing ad code on the page." – Automated email from Google AdSense, June 3, 2016.

So our knuckles were wrapped for reporting a story where an NGO's knuckles were wrapped. Something big is missing from the search engine's automated search if it flags 5-year-old old news reports as potentially inflammatory.

Is part of the problem that Google’s online advertising system is “too big to control,” as Wired suggests? The monstrosity from Mountain View controls at least 31 percent of the digital advertising space. Or is it just today's modern problems when bots try to have interactions as humans? AdSense just creates silly situations — for example, for years I could not write about the Middle East without having an ad served from “Dubai Friends,” which shows a Kardashian look-alike trying to imitate the real Kim posing on the cover of Paper Magazine.

As Kevin Montgomery of Wired points out, Google’s ad-serving software also has the creepy ability to discriminate against women seeking employment as well as targeting end users based on their health history. The European Union is also investigating Google alleging that AdSense boosted the company’s “Google Shopping” channel. Such tactics may not be evil, but they are at a minimum self-serving.

This sordid tale may just be a harbinger warning us that perhaps robots should not really rule the world. Sure, they have proven to be adept at manufacturing as well as design, and could be instrumental in reducing a firm’s carbon footprint. But when it comes to running a business, Google’s AdSense should ease off the Kafka-esque alert flags. At least bureaucrats can be reasoned with -- or, in desperation, harassed or called out on social media. Whether physical or digital, robots -- as in the case of Google -- are an example of how automation can become an irritant or even a baldness-inducing nightmare.

Image credit: Leon Kaye

Update, June 7, 10:25 a.m.: Triple Pundit received another notice from Google, this time over an old recycling article.

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye