Google has reversed a decision which saw it previously refuse to carry paid search adverts for a pro-life Christian group when the searcher types in “abortion”.
The Christian Institute, the group in question, (which must have received greater levels of traffic over this event than it ever has before because of this story) approached the search engine earlier this year requesting paid adspace.
Google refused, on the grounds that its policy on paid search advertising prevents it from mixing religion and abortion content.
Tricky. The group responded by asserting its free speech rights had been affected, noting that the search engine allowed advertising from abortion clinics and pro-choice websites which criticised religion.
Now Google has agreed to display these adverts, pledging to allow a “level playing field”.
A spokesperson said: “The issue of abortion is an emotive subject and Google does not take a particular side.”
Whatever your opinions on abortion or indeed any contentious issue, the search engine must exercise some editorial control regarding contentious subjects in order to protect its reputation.
To pick an extreme example, it could not place an advert for the BNP without provoking a storm of criticism (for our US readers, the BNP is a far right UK political party). Having said that, I have never seen a political advert, though, so perhaps it is avoiding politics altogether.
Then I began to ponder what contentious issues Google would carry adverts for. A search for “personality test” did not throw up any paid search results for the Scientologists.
However, a search for “scientology” or “L Ron Hubbard” brings up sponsored links for the religion many people consider to be a dangerous cult.
To be fair to Google, if it were to decide on a moral code and impose that upon its paid ads, it would be essentially forcing those principles upon the millions of people using its service.
It might seem fine to me to ban certain subjects from receiving additional visibility, but then many people could disagree. It would be problematic, maybe even downright wrong for the engine to inflict its views on people, even if the alternative is to give page time to contentious areas.
Currently, there are demonstrations against Google and Microsoft taking place in India.
This is because they have been carrying paid ads for tests which claim to inform expectant mothers what sex their unborn babies are, although they have both now ceased to do so.
India has issues with female babies being terminated and has outlawed products which purport to tell the parent what gender they are carrying.
How difficult must it be for a company this big to keep on top of local moral stance and law? Yet clearly it must do so – its corporate reputation would be harmed if it encouraged locally illegal behaviour – imagine if a search engine began advertising rabbit guns to British teens!
It is not just search portals that can be accused of bad practice. Earlier this year, Justin Williams, the assistant editor of the Telegraph Media Group, slammed the Guardian for buying sponsored links for the keywords “Madeleine McCann”.
“There is no phrase too sensitive, no taste that is too poor … apparently,” he sneered.
Where an organisation buys its adspace can clearly affect its reputation, just as it could potentially harm the search engine or website displaying the promotion.
I think what interests me about the entire debate is that these are issues few people could have predicted in the early stages of search. It makes me wonder how Google, or any organisation which publishes advertising, will retain its moral stance when ethics are personal and localised but the internet has no borders.