When Google decided in May to stop accepting online ads for short-term, ultra-high-cost personal loans known as payday loans, some people wondered whether the company was acting more like a publisher exercising editorial control than a supposedly neutral search engine.
Now that Google’s policy has gone into effect, it’s worth asking: To what extent should the company be a gatekeeper, judging which online ads are okay and which are not? And if the world’s largest Internet search engine is going to be selective about accepting ads, where does it draw the line?
The same questions could be applied to Microsoft and Yahoo, which refuse to carry ads for certain types of sensitive content (but still advertise payday loans). Baidu, the world’s second-largest search engine, has been grappling with these issues since earlier this year, when its practice of promoting medical listings without vetting them sparked outrage over a tragedy: a young man with cancer died after receiving an ineffective treatment from a hospital he found through a Baidu ad. The outcry prompted an investigation by China’s Internet regulator, which ordered Baidu to review its ads and remove any that promote unlicensed medical providers.
University of Maryland law professor Frank Pasquale says Google has tried to have it both ways: sometimes it portrays itself as a simple utility and a mere conduit of its customers’ ads, but other times it presents itself as a content provider that can and should exercise control over the ads it shows.
“Whenever Google is accused of abetting or enabling copyright infringement or defamation, it says, ‘We’re just [connecting people] like the phone company does, and you wouldn’t sue the phone company over this,’” says Pasquale. “But when people say, ‘If you’re a common carrier [utility], you should take all ads,’ Google will say, ‘No, we’re like a newspaper and we should have carte blanche over what we publish.’”