Editor’s comment: Google has become a victim of its own success, a tech pioneer that makes all our lives better, a company that should be given credit for pushing the boundaries of what is possible, which always comes with some risks, and which should be cut some slack if, out of the millions of hours of video that are posted on YouTube, some of it is filled with hate and the company inadvertently sells some ads against it. That is one way you could look at the ‘ads for hate’ scandal this month. The alternative narrative is this, from one of the UK’s most powerful (and occasionally shrill) newspapers, the Daily Mail:
“Cash for hate – they still don’t get it. Anger as boss says terrorists make ‘pennies, not pounds’. In another day of shame for the tech giant, it tried to downplay the impact of adverts placed alongside extremist videos… Web giant refuses to say it’ll hire staff to root out vile content [the story was written on Tuesday]. MPs reacted furiously to the mealy-mouthed mea culpa.”
Alongside the story, it listed various statistics under the headline ‘Behemoth that’s awash with money’, including £15.7 billion profits for Google’s parent Alphabet, £72 billion revenues last year and £6.3 billion revenues from the UK. In its ‘Comment’ column, the paper said Google was complacent, and accused it of relying on the public to flag up hate videos instead of hiring an army of monitors. And it suggested that “much-needed regulation must surely follow.”
This gives an idea of how badly Google’s own brand could be damaged if they do not respond adequately. The company has apologised for what happened and is helped by the fact that sensible governments encourage important innovators who create growth markets. They are such a company. But that alone will not stop calls for tighter online regulation if the public mood demands it.
Google and other tech giants have influence of their own inside governments and the response from MPs was quite low-key. But this was a PR disaster for Google and comes after reports of how someone was tortured on Facebook Live and ongoing concerns about the role of social media in spreading fake news in an already politically-charged world. There is a narrative building, here in the UK at least, that bad things happen on some digital platforms and nobody seems to be taking full responsibility for dealing with them.
Broadcasters and newspapers are responsible for everything that emanates from their platforms: every sentence that is written and every second of video that is shown. They make money from what they ‘sell’ but in return they have to meet strict social and legal obligations, forcing them to use teams of editors and legal departments, which is expensive. As user-generated video and social media become more influential, it seems reasonable that every platform that distributes video should have to consistently reach the same high standards of social responsibility. That points to higher costs, if nothing else, and that will to some extent start to level the playing field between different media types.