Google Overhauls Policies After Uproar Over YouTube Videos
The Google logo hangs above the Google Inc. booth during the Slush startups event in Helsinki, Finland. (Photographer: Tomi Setala/Bloomberg)

Google Overhauls Policies After Uproar Over YouTube Videos


(Bloomberg) -- Google is giving marketers more control over their online ads after a slew of brands halted spending in the U.K. over concerns about offensive content.

The Alphabet Inc. unit also expanded its definition of hate speech under its advertising policy to include vulnerable groups, which includes those discriminated against because of their identity, socioeconomic class or country of origin. The new policies apply to the YouTube online video service and Google’s expansive network that serves ads across the web.

"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," Philipp Schindler, Google’s chief business officer, wrote in a blog announcing the changes late Monday night.

The moves are aimed at rebutting criticism the search giant has not done enough to curb hate speech online, but they also thrust Google further into a heated public debate over censorship and political ideologies. 

The new policies mark a sharp turn for Google, which has historically largely hewed to its position as a neutral host of outside sources of online content. However, as the company has grabbed a greater share of digital advertising -- and bids for more television ad dollars -- criticism of its stance has grown. This came to a head in recent days after the London-based Times newspaper reported ads from marquee brands in the U.K. were running with videos that promoted terrorism or anti-Semitism. Several marketers pulled their ads from Google properties in the country in response.

“We have strict policies that define where Google ads should appear, and in the vast majority of cases, our policies and tools work as intended,” Schindler wrote. “But at times we don’t get it right.”

Altice NV Chief Executive Officer Michel Combes said the two issues that must be resolved are data privacy, including the capacity to respect different rules across countries, and ad placement, “to avoid what we have seen lately. In the future, these two elements will be absolutely crucial to build confidence.”

Altice announced Tuesday that it bought video advertising service Teads, a purchase which could allow the Netherlands-based telecom company founded by billionaire Patrick Drahi to reach ad sales of several billion euros in a few years.

Granular Control

Google’s changes give advertisers two key new capabilities. The first introduces a default setting for those starting a marketing campaign. When they sign up, Google will automatically exclude websites and videos deemed "potentially objectionable." 

The second feature offers more granular control over where advertisers place ads. That will make it easier to exclude content and for advertisers to fine-tune where they want their ads to appear.

With each tweak, Google hopes to give advertisers more responsibility over where their ads show up online. The rise of automated, or programmatic, ad-serving has complicated this process. Of course, Google, the world’s largest digital advertiser, has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of this trend.

Additionally, Google is bringing more safeguards for advertisers against spam video accounts on YouTube, while increasing staff to enforce its content policies for advertising.

The more dramatic Google decision, however, involves online speech. Its prior ads policy was fairly boilerplate, restricting content that contains harassment and incites violence against groups based on race, religion or gender identity. The company said it’s broadening what statements it considers incendiary to include speech it defines as humiliating and demeaning to targeted groups. For example, that could affect websites that talk about how women shouldn’t shouldn’t learn math or belong in the kitchen.

The timing and implementation of the new policies is still being set, a spokeswoman said. Eventually, Google plans to disable ads based on these criteria on individual web pages rather than entire publications, the spokeswoman added.

GroupM, the world’s largest media investment group, said it “welcomes the commitments” as they would improve safety for brands if delivered.

“We look forward to the details about the tools and a sense of what improvement benchmarks we should expect,” GroupM said in a statement. “We also hope for quick delivery of the tools that can be deployed, as many thousands of campaigns are involved.”

U.K. Boycott

The ad boycott in the U.K. came amid growing anxiety among publishers and media buyers about Google and Facebook Inc.’s rising share of the digital ad market. Google faces multiple antitrust investigations in the European Union, with several publishers and advertisers in the region complaining about its power. The U.K. accounted for $7.8 billion of Alphabet’s sales in 2016, or 8.6 percent.

Brian Wieser, an analyst at Pivotal Research Group, downgraded Alphabet stock on Monday in response to the British boycott. "Google faces a hostile industry of media owners in Europe," he wrote before Google’s policy changes. "We expect they will be all too happy to highlight future brand safety failings."

The sharp response from Google’s advertisers is also due to the political climate, marketing buyers said. Both Google and Facebook have taken steps to cut funding for sites that spread hate speech and misinformation after the controversial aftermath of the U.S. election. But they are both still criticized for falling short. Advertisers, meanwhile, are increasingly concerned with staying out of any political conflicts.

"We’re just in a very divisive time," said Sam Bloom, general manager for Camelot Communications, a firm that works with media buyers. "No brand wants to get the Scarlet Letter."

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