Friday, April 27, 2018

Google Censoring Religious Speech?

It was a post shared by Mike Huckabee that caught my attention. "Google Rejects Christian Publisher's Ads Because They Mention Bible and Jesus" the title read. In the current political climate it's the kind of thing that people are likely to point to as more persecution from the left or to point to as much ado about nothing from the right, depending on what their political leaning might be. So, which is it? While I respect Mike Huckabee a great deal, he isn't always so great about verifying his sources and "The Western Journal" which is were the article is located often gets things wrong. I really began to question it when I noticed that it was talking about "AdWords" and "personalized content."
For those of you who don't know, "AdWords" is the term Google uses to describe advertising that targets a particular audience based on what keywords they search for. For example, if you type "coffee" into the Google search engine you are likely to start seeing ads for Starbucks, or Folgers, or coffee pots. This is because these companies are trying to target their ads at people who drink coffee. A Christian publisher like Concordia Publishing House is likely to try to target their ads at Christians, but this left me wondering why Google would tell them that they would need to remove any mention of Jesus and the Bible from their website. It didn't make sense.
So, I did what anybody should do when faced with information like this. I went to the original press release. While the original press release paints a similar picture and also has things are confusing about it there are things here that indicate that things are not quite what they seem. Here they refer to "remarketing ads." Remarketing ads are ads that pop up when you are trying to leave a website. Most of us find them irritating, but the basic concept is that a user visits a website and doesn't buy anything, so rather than the website getting nothing from the user the website puts an ad in front of the user so that the user will click to go to another website. Google pays a small amount for the privilege of redirecting users to another website.
What many people have assumed is that Google is telling Concordia Publishing House that they can't advertise on their platform because of the content of their website, but when read the advertising policy it appears something else is going on. To paraphrase the policy, Google will not allow advertising that targets people based on a number of hot button issues. One of those is religion, but it includes other things like sexual identity, union membership, political affiliation, etc. If I'm trying to target advertising at Christians then I might want to target the keywords "Jesus" or "Bible" since those are most commonly used by Christians, but Google will reject those ads. If I were writing homosexual erotica then I might want to target "LGBT", but Google policy would reject those ads as well. Why? I suspect it is because it would be possible to use AdWords and the ads people click on for a third party to find out personal information about people. But that's still no reason for Google to suggest that Concordia Publishing House remove Jesus from their website.
But let's go back to this "remarketing ads" concept. Keep in mind that Google is trying to keep third parties from finding out what the religion of the people who click on their ads is. Now, suppose that Concordia Publishing House wants to make money by allowing Google to place ads on their site. Previously, Google would've been willing, but with the concern over Cambridge Analytica they don't want the advertisers knowing that the people who clicked on their ads are coming from a religious website. So they simply say that they won't place ads on religious websites. Likewise, if they are consistent with their policy, they won't place ads on LGBT websites or on a number of other websites.
Is what Google is doing a good idea? No, I don't think it is. I think there are a lot of people who are trying to advertise who won't be able to get their message to their desired audience because of this. But at the same time I'm not convinced that what they are doing with this is religious discrimination. It's more likely that this is an overreaction in an attempt to fill a huge hole in their privacy settings. As for us on the right, I think we need to be careful about jumping to conclusions.