By Alex Salkever In early February, environmental group Oceana bought two Google ads keyed to search terms that might be used by Web surfers seeking information on cruise-ship vacations. One of the text ads criticized Royal Caribbean (RCL), and the other gave a more generic message about saving the oceans and stopping pollution. Both linked back to Oceana's Web site, where the Washington D.C. group criticizes the cruise-ship industry for environmental violations such as dumping sewage, oil, and other pollutants into the seas.
The cruise-ship industry has long been a hot button for environmentalists -- but Oceana quickly found out just how hot that button is. A day after the ads appeared, Google pulled them down, and Oceana was informed that its ads had violated Google's editorial policy. "The policy states that Google does not accept advertising if the ad or site advocates against other individuals, groups, or organizations," wrote Cindy McCaffrey, Google's vice-president of corporate marketing, in an e-mail.
NO PURCHASE NECESSARY. Oceana protested, claiming that Google had not clearly stated any such policy in the contract supplied to purchasers of keywords in Google's AdWords program. (In fact, I could find no mention of this policy in Google's official editorial guidelines.) Oceana also claimed that its free-speech rights had been violated, and that Google had bowed to the wishes of a powerful advertiser. The travel industry is one of the largest buyers of advertising on Google, which reportedly pulled in gross revenues in 2003 of close to $1 billion -- mostly from online advertising sales. Google denies that it yanked the ads because of complaints by cruise lines or any other travel companies.
Legally, it seems that Google and other search engines have no clear obligation to accept such ads -- or any other type, for that matter -- so its actions didn't violate Oceana's right to free speech. Even so, the Oceana brouhaha highlights key issues for Google and other search engines that will only become more inflamed as such sites grow and prosper. Namely, commerce and conflict sit poorly on the same Web page. Likewise, control and transparency often exist as opposing forces. How Google, the world's No. 1 search engine, balances these tensions could change the shape of the Internet.
"Google can make choices about what people see and what they don't see, and how it's ordered," says John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. "As more and more people use Google to access the Internet, that definitely raises some important policy questions."
FANNING THE FLAMES. Aside from its position as one of cyberspace's most powerful portals, Google's reach extends far beyond its own site. The search company also controls AdWords, one of the largest networks that distributes keyword ads to third-party Web sites. And Google has also been selling contextual advertising that associates specific ads with content, regardless of whether a keyword has been purchased. For example, in Google's AdSense program, an article about the Copacabana nightclub might draw ads from Brazilian resorts -- even if none of them had purchased the keyword Copacabana. This means that Google could be exercising editorial policy on third-party sites that are unaware Google is making these choices for them.
How might this be important in cyberspace? One of Google's top AdWords clients happens to be The New York Times. Advertisements like the ones Oceana posted on Google would likely be accepted without hesitation for the Times' print edition. In fact, such ads sometimes occupy prominent positions around the Gray Lady's opinion pages, and they often offer interesting and useful advocacy positions. So, Google's editorial policies have the potential to alter the nature of a publication such as The New York Times in a subtle but important manner online.
Or how about this situation: With spending on political advertising looking to set a record this election year, Google's editorial policy will have a big effect on what information voters do and don't receive via Web advertising. According to McCaffrey, Google's policy allows side-by-side policy comparison, but it bans attack ads -- something major TV networks and large newspapers have been unwilling to do. That laissez faire attitude toward the political free-for-all may or may not be correct, but I find it a little disturbing that Google can be the arbiter over a key information source for voters.
TOP-RANKED. More troubling still is if Oceana hadn't screamed bloody murder, Google's role as arbiter might never have been made public. No one knows how many times Google has declined to run ads that many would have perceived as legitimate exercises of issue advocacy. Google doesn't post this information, but it has refused other ads it deems violate its editorial policy in the past.
Will Google's policy make surfing the Internet more pleasant? In some sense, yes. A Google experience won't contain offensive or contentious language, at least on the advertising side. And it won't make anyone uncomfortable. But I'm not at all convinced that excising potential sources of conflict or heated debate will serve Google or the Internet well in the long run. Oceana and many other environmental groups rely heavily on such ads to raise money and gain support. Putting the kibosh on virtual protest could put a chill on such groups' cyberspace aspirations. Losing ad revenue from advocacy groups might not hurt Google's bottom line, but it could sure change how the search giant is perceived by the public.
Of course, an inability to buy ads on Google hardly renders Oceana impotent. Anyone can find information about Oceana and alleged cruise-ship pollution quite easily on Google by typing in obvious search terms. And not everyone uses Google as their primary source of information. Some other prominent Web properties, including Yahoo! (YHOO), have stated they would gladly carry the Oceana ads attached to cruise-industry keywords. And Oceana still occupies one of the top ranks of sites returned by Google queries for ocean pollution.
FULL DISCLOSURE. Still, the tactic of giving people information they didn't seek is a time-honored form of protest and dissent that has helped fan the flames of democracy in the U.S and elsewhere. In other media, refusing advertisements on policy grounds is extremely rare unless those ads are clearly lewd, gross, or otherwise a public nuisance. Oceana's ads hardly qualify. Further, readers of a site such as the The New York Times almost certainly aren't clicking away with the explicit understanding they could be seeing a somewhat sanitized version of the dead-tree edition.
At the very least, Google and other Web companies owe their surfers more information about what they do and why they do it. "The general rule should be one of transparency -- that someone should know what they don't know," says Palfrey. He thinks a good start might be some type of disclosure system whereby Google or other Web search engines list the organizations they have refused to sell ads to.
That might be a good addendum to any editorial policy Google or other search engines have. And it certainly will help them maintain their credibility and usefulness as the key information suppliers on the Web. Salkever is technology editor for BusinessWeek Online. Follow his Nothing But Net column every week on BusinessWeek Online