Google has begun a crackdown on “fake news” sites, removing hundreds of publishers from using its advertising platform.
In a blog post from late January, Google’s Director of Project Management of Sustainable Ads, Scott Spencer, outlines the company’s guidelines for using ads from its AdSense platform. Spencer mentions several guidelines Google uses to screen for undesirable ads including frauds and scams, as well as “fake news”:
“From November to December 2016, we reviewed 550 sites that were suspected of misrepresenting content to users, including impersonating news organizations. We took action against 340 of them for violating our policies, both misrepresentation and other offenses, and nearly 200 publishers were kicked out of our network permanently [emphasis added].”
While the content policy implies a purpose of protecting users from openly dishonest sites such as those impersonating an established news organization, the policy of disallowing ads for sites that “misrepresent, misstate, or conceal information” leaves much open to interpretation, allowing news sites publishing controversial content to lose their revenue stream. Famously, pro-peace website Antiwar.com lost its use of Google ads over publishing real images from the Iraq war.
Free speech’s new challenges in the 21st century
Jeremy Kauffman, founder and CEO of Blockchain-based content platform LBRY, sees censorship as an ever-present issue for humanity to face:
“Freedom from censorship is a never ending challenge. Throughout history, censorship is the norm, not the exception. Today, billions of people live under regimes that suppress freedom of expression and America just elected a president that is the largest threat to free speech since John Adams.”
The threat to free speech extends beyond Google’s ability to deny sites revenue over controversial content. The New York Times has had its app removed from the Apple app store in China, under pressure from Chinese authorities over the publication’s stories on former prime minister Wen Jiabao’s family wealth. Twitter also received National Security Letter requests from the FBI demanding information about certain users. Finally, Twitter itself has engaged in its own policing behavior of users, suspending hundreds of thousands of accounts, including that of infamous right-wing troll Milo Yiannopoulos, for “terrorism” and “bullying,” activities subject to a certain degree of interpretation.
Technology as a way to combat censorship
As the threats to silence free expression increase, technology’s vital role in providing freedom from censorship expands. For example, Antiwar.com leveraged Bitcoin donations following its troubles with Google AdSense to stay funded and decentralized content-sharing platforms like LBRY further empower the individual publisher against centralized control.
Kaufman believes that the continuing development of technology to better spread information is instrumental to outpace the threats to silence those ideas:
“Technology has always played a vital role in combating censorship. Without the printing press, there would have been no Protestant Reformation or American Revolution. Technology is just as important today: Blockchains protect citizens from government overreach by creating systems that are resilient, if not impervious, to interference.”