Tech

Shira Ovide is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering technology. She previously was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

Even among the opinionated Gadfly columnists, some issues don't easily lend themselves to cut-and-dried judgments.

Three Gadfly technology writers on three continents had a heated debate about Google's announcement on Wednesday that it will stop showing ads next to Web-search results for "payday" loans. The decision bans a powerful marketing tool from providers of a category of short-term loans, which critics contend take advantage of low-income people by imposing onerous fees and interest rates. The lending companies say they are providing credit to people who can't obtain loans from traditional sources.

So is Google justified in using its discretion to stop taking money from an abusive corner of the financial world? Or is the company unfairly passing judgment on a legal industry that the company finds distasteful? 

These are complex questions about the reach of technology superpowers and the fuzzy line between online capitalism and censorship. To give a peek into the unfiltered debate among Gadfly writers struggling with a nuanced topic, we decided to publish an edited transcript from an online messaging service we use to discuss potential column ideas (and to trade silly emojis).

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Leila Abboud, Europe technology columnist: I wonder what you guys think of this news on Google banning ads from payday lenders. Tim, it’s a bit similar to what you wrote about at Baidu, i.e. What's the responsibility of the search engine in such ethically charged stuff? Part of me thinks it's weird for Google to be playing arbiter against payday lenders since they may be horrible but aren't illegal ... It seems a strange role for them to take on -- slippery slope, no?

Tim Culpan, Asia technology columnist: It's their own belief. So, they can do it.

Leila: I think when you have 90% market share in search and have such power to direct people to content good and bad, then you may have bigger responsibilities than just following your beliefs. But respect your point of view!

Google's Kingdom
About two-thirds of all Web searches in the U.S. are made on Google -- essentially making the company a front door to the Internet
Source: comScore figures for February 2016

Shira Ovide, U.S. technology columnist: All companies that take advertising make decisions about which ads to run, and which not to. Would the NY Times run ads from neo-Nazi groups? (To use an outlandish example.)  But it is more uncomfortable for Google -- the computers run everything! -- to remind people that actual human beings also decide things.

Leila: Yes, but normal companies that take off don't have such sway over the life and death of a sector. So if NYT doesn't run gun ads, the gun companies don't really get gored. Google is not a normal media outlet, I would argue, given their scale, reach & power.

Shira: And that’s a good point.

Tim: If payday lending falls as a result, then surely that indicates payday lending wasn't a necessity but is more an opportunistic product. Taking away Google doesn't mean they no longer have places to advertise.

Shira: Remember, Google got in big, big trouble for carrying ads from illegal online pharmacies. (As you said, payday loans aren't illegal.)

Leila: Just think, this is coming on heels of the whole ridiculous debate in U.S. over Facebook giving supposed short shift to news stories from conservative outlets. This payday thing raises similar interesting questions over power of these platforms in directing web traffic and commerce.

Tim: Think of it like cigarettes. So Google is saying, we don't want to make money from that $#&^ . But you can still Google the payday lenders. It seems to me that Google's made an ethical decision. Which comes back to their “Don't Be Evil” mantra.

Leila: Their mantra is B.S.

Shira: I'm going to take this to a crazy place. What if Google decided abortions or birth control were unethical, and so banned ads from companies that provide abortion or sell birth control?

Leila: Under Tim's rationale Google would even be able to ban ads for cheese and other high-fat foods, right? Nanny Google protecting you from your worst instincts. As a French citizen, I CARE ABOUT CHEESE.

Tim: Payday loans are NOT the only way to meet a short-term funding need. There were alternatives before. And there will be alternatives after.

Leila: But why should Google get to put its finger on the scale to facilitate that change?

***

This went on for a while. As you can see, we didn't reach a consensus, if there even is a single answer. But the debate did expose discomfort with the power of Google, Facebook and other ubiquitous technology services. Like policies of governments, what Google and Facebook decide has broad ramifications. Those two companies -- perhaps more than any entities in the world -- influence what information people are exposed to, or not. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Payday lending services may continue to show up in Google search results, but the lenders won't be able to purchase the small ads that appear at the top or right side of the Google search results page.

  2. We were inspired by Quartz's publication of its staff members' internal messages debating Venmo, a mobile payments app. 

  3. Google's policies already ban or place restrictions on ads for many products and services, including counterfeit goods, pornography, cigarettes, alcohol and "dangerous products or services" including guns and explosives. 

  4. (Expletive deleted.)

To contact the author of this story:
Shira Ovide in New York at sovide@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Daniel Niemi at dniemi1@bloomberg.net