[UPDATED BELOW] Since 2006, the venerable libertarian anti-interventionist website AntiWar.com has hosted uncensored photos of abuses committed by United States troops at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. You can see them here. On Wednesday morning, AntiWar.com received an automated email from Google explaining that the site was being suspended from Google's AdSense ad network, because that page violates AdSense policy. Either Google is incorrectly enforcing its own policies, or their policies do not allow for controversial — but clearly and objectively newsworthy — content.
March 20 Update: Just when Google was about to resume serving ads to AntiWar.com, the site received another notice claiming that another page was in violation. This one didn't feature Abu Ghraib photos at all, but rather an Associated Press photo of corpses in Donetsk. (Warning: That link, as you can probably guess, is very graphic.) While it is understandable that Google would rather not serve ads next to corpse photos, this presents something of a challenge for a site that is, as its name might hint, dedicated to opposing war, in large part because war involves the production of a great many corpses. AntiWar.com has run probably hundreds of similar photos over the years, and Eric Garris compared finding each one of them the site has ever published, for the purposes of removing AdSense code from each one, post-by-post, to "playing whack-a-mole." If AdSense is too squeamish for any and all graphic but newsworthy content, it's hard to see how it can work for publishers of independent journalism. The rest of this post continues as originally published (and updated).
[UPDATE: AntiWar.com was indeed in violation — if barely — of AdSense policy. See below for details.]
Here's Google's explanation of the policy AntiWar.com is in violation of, from their email to the site:
VIOLENCE/GORE: As stated in our program policies, AdSense publishers are not permitted to place Google ads on pages with violent or disturbing content, including sites with gory text or images. More information about this policy can be found in our help center ( https://support.google.com/adsense/answer... ).
VIOLENCE: As stated in our program policies, AdSense publishers are not permitted to place Google ads on pages with violent content. This includes sites with content related to breaking bones, getting hit by trains or cars, or people receiving serious injuries. More information about this policy can be found in our help center ( https://support.google.com/adsense/answer... ).
Obviously, there is an important difference between "gore" of the titillating, "Faces of Death" variety and "gore" that depicts human rights abuses carried out by the United States military. Are Google's algorithms and human monitors capable of recognizing that difference?
AntiWar.com cofounder Eric Garris thinks, understandably, that Google was requesting that they pull the pictures entirely if AntiWar.com is to continue working with AdSense. He told me that total suspension from AdSense could cost the site thousands of dollars a month, which is a decent chunk of AntiWar.com's modest budget. (They're currently looking into joining alternate ad networks.)
Garris also told me that the Abu Ghraib page has never actually included Google ads, specifically because of the obvious possibility that advertisers would balk at seeing their ads there. According to a Google spokesperson, that would mean AntiWar.com hasn't actually violated AdSense policies at all. What's still unclear is why this suspension happened, how AntiWar.com can get reinstated, and how they can make sure something like this doesn't happen in the future.
When found to be in violation of policy, AdSense clients are told to remove the offending content and ask to be reinstated in the program, and they are given very little recourse to challenge Google's interpretation of its policy. Feel free to try out the "Appeal a Violation Notification Troubleshooter" yourself. As you can see, if you answer "no" to "Have you fixed the policy issues we contacted you about?" you are effectively told that that is not a valid response:
We encourage you to make the necessary changes to ensure that the content in your network complies with program policies. In many cases, our decision is final. However, in some cases, if you are able to make appropriate changes to bring your site into compliance, we may re-enable ad serving to your site.
Once you make the necessary changes you may submit an appeal by using this troubleshooter. Please don't do so until you’ve ensured that your websites comply with our program policies.
Other Google support documents similarly do not allow for the idea that Google's policies or interpretation of its policies are flawed, or that a mistake could have been made:
File a strong appeal: Once you've done all of the above then you're ready and welcome to send us your appeal. To make sure that the appeal is a strong one, please tell us exactly what action you've taken on your site to resolve the violations and also tell us how you'll prevent similar occurrences in the future. You could even include some other example URLs that you've taken action on proactively. The more information you provide us with the better informed we are and can see how serious you are about working with us and remaining compliant. Once you're ready to start the appeals process, please file your appeal using this Policy Violation Appeal form.
According to Garris, AntiWar's ad sales representative reached out to AdSense contacts and was told to formally appeal by mail — U.S. Mail, not email. AntiWar.Com received another email from AdSense support this morning, that again called for the site to remove ads from pages that the site says never had ads on them to begin with, or to "remove the pages completely."
I was able to reach a Google spokesperson who confirmed that if, as Garris insists, the Abu Ghraib photo pages never featured ads, then they weren't in violation of AdSense policy. The spokesperson couldn't comment on specific instances of AdSense policy application, but I was told that Google was in the process of "reaching out to the publisher."
And indeed, shortly after I spoke with Google, AntiWar.com received another email from AdSense.
Our media team noticed your blog post and informed me regarding the issue you raise in your post.
I am very sorry that you had this experience, as we should have warned you before blacklisting the site, which we didn't. Our warning would have mentioned simply removing our AdSense code from the Abu Ghraib page, which would allow you to continue earning money on the other pages of your site that were not in violation of any AdSense policies. At this point, please remove the ad code from this page and we can reinstate ad serving throughout your site. Once complete, please file a site appeal, and our team will review ASAP. Further, revenue earned to this point, and after reinstatement will not be affected.
Google does need to be very careful with this sort of thing, since we have to make sure that our ads do not appear on pages that violate any of our policies. There are surprising instances of bad actors out there, and even otherwise trustworthy publishers can end up being the victim of bad traffic. At the same time, though, partners like you deserve a better customer service experience even when there are problems. Your post has sparked conversation here — you have been heard.
Please feel free to reach out again if need be. While I can't solve everything, I'm happy to hear from great partners like you directly.
Garris still says the pages in question have never included ad code. If he's correct, Google's continued insistence otherwise is baffling. Even if Garris is wrong, and ad code was accidentally inserted into the Abu Ghraib pages, it's highly unlikely that Google would've been this responsive to his appeal if a journalist at an outlet with a national audience hadn't inquired with Google PR.
UPDATE 2:15 p.m.: After another review of the pages cited by Google, AntiWar.com did find remnants of AdSense code, probably dating back to a CMS migration. It doesn't appear that the code was actually delivering any ads, and even if it were, the ads would've been invisible to a reader. [UPDATE 2: This Internet Archive link suggests that ads may have been visible on at least one of the pages.] It remains the case that Google AdSense support is lacking for smaller publishers — ad-delivering code on a controversial page with genuine news value shouldn't immediately result in a full suspension from the network — and it's unclear whether Google is able to distinguish between working, ad-delivering code and stray remnants. (If it can, it probably should tell publishers in greater detail where the offending code is when issuing suspensions.)
Overeager moderation by the behemoth companies that have an outsized influence on internet traffic and site revenue is not at all uncommon. (Facebook is a particularly egregious offender. Gawker itself was once suspended from Facebook after an unknown person or persons reported posts on Ferguson as "racist.") And the process for appealing these sorts of incidents is frustratingly opaque, especially for publishers who don't have specific personal contacts within Google or Facebook. A simple search — on Google, naturally — for AdSense contact information turns up numerous forum posts, dating back years, from publishers trying to appeal suspensions or ask simple questions about the network but who are unable to reach human beings at Google.
Google may resolve this particular case fairly, but the incident should still worry publishers of controversial political content who rely on Google for revenue. It looks to be much too easy for a malicious complaint, a faulty algorithm, simple human misinterpretation or overeager application of policy to cost a publisher a lot of money. The result could be a very real chilling effect on independent journalism.
Photo via Getty