Techdirt's think tank, the Copia Institute, is working with the Trust & Safety Professional Association and its sister organization, the Trust & Safety Foundation, to produce an ongoing series of case studies about content moderation decisions. These case studies are presented in a neutral fashion, not aiming to criticize or applaud any particular decision, but to highlight the many different challenges that content moderators face and the tradeoffs they result in. Find more case studies here on Techdirt and on the TSF website.

Content Moderation Case Study: Google's Ad Policies Inadvertently Block Religious Organizations From Advertising On YouTube (2019)

from the unacceptable-content? dept

Summary: Google's ad service offers purchasers access to millions of users, including those viewing videos on YouTube. But its policies -- meant to prevent abuse, fraud, harassment, or targeting of certain demographics -- sometimes appear to prevent legitimate organizations from doing something as simple as informing others of their existence.

Chad Robichaux, the founder of Christian veterans support nonprofit Mighty Oaks, wanted to reach out to veterans who might need his services. But his attempt to purchase YouTube ads was rejected by Google's Ad service for a seemingly strange reason.

According to a screenshot posted by Robichaux to Twitter, Google forbade the use of "Christian" as a keyword. To Robichaux (and many responders to his tweet), this was evidence of Big Tech's bias against Christians and conservatives.

But the real reason for this block was far less censorial or nefarious, if no more explicable. According to YouTube (which reached out directly to Robicheaux), the aim isn't to keep Christians from advertising, but rather to prevent advertisers from targeting users on the basis of their religion. Unfortunately, Google's policy doesn't exactly make that clear, instead stating that ads cannot contain "religious basis" content if the purchaser is engaging in personalized advertising.

Decisions to be made by Google:

  • Does blocking certain keywords make some ads impossible to place, no matter what audience is targeted or where the content may appear?

  • Is it ok for advertisers to target these groups if the users have already self-identified as being members of these groups? Would it be ok if users could explicitly opt in to being targeted in this way?

  • Is clarification or simplification of the rules needed to ensure accidental blocking or further misunderstandings are avoided?

  • Should advertisers be given more guidance on how to craft ads/seek users to prevent violations?

Questions and policy implications to consider:
  • Does having control of a majority of the advertising market lower the quality of assistance users receive from Google given the limited options available to them elsewhere?

  • Does increasing the number of keyword restrictions result in fewer successful ad placements and lower ad sales?

  • Does "protecting" users from personalized ads using certain keywords result in users see more irrelevant ads?

Resolution: The confusion was (somewhat) cleared up by YouTube's direct contact with the concerned ad buyer. But other confusion still remains since the policies guiding ad purchasing/ad construction are far from straightforward. Allegations of bias were off-base. Instead, it was simply Google enforcing its policies, which would have made it equally impossible to use any other religion as a keyword.

Originally posted on the Trust & Safety Foundation website.

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Filed Under: ads, content moderation, religious targeting, youtube
Companies: google, youtube


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  • identicon
    Wonderer, 12 Mar 2021 @ 4:23pm

    How Dumb Is It?

    What happens if somebody's name is Christian? Does that get blocked too?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Andrew Allen, 13 Mar 2021 @ 4:03am

    There is nothing inadvertant about it!

    I worked for a private Chrisitian school in Texas. We paid for Google accounts for everyone. Bith Google and PayPal flat out closed down anything we tried to do that was public facing, saying that Christian school were illegal.

    There is nothing inadvertant about Big Tech's discrimination against Christians.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 13 Mar 2021 @ 5:37am

      Re: There is nothing inadvertant about it!

      Are you truly that ignorant? Or did you simply not bother to read the entire article? ANY religion would trigger their filters, not just Christianity.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 13 Mar 2021 @ 5:50am

        Re: Re: There is nothing inadvertant about it!

        And just as much, Google would block "only Christians welcome" just as much as it would "no Christians need apply".

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 13 Mar 2021 @ 1:06pm

      Re: There is nothing inadvertant about it!

      There's nothing inadvertant about majority groups' regular claims of being downtrodden.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 14 Mar 2021 @ 10:48am

      Re: There is nothing inadvertant about it!

      okay but why you lyin' though

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Mar 2021 @ 9:29am

    They could have added "personalized" in between the words "Google" and "advertising policies". But it's Google, so what do you expect.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Pixelation, 13 Mar 2021 @ 6:29pm

    It's a feature, not a bug...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Mar 2021 @ 3:01pm

    It is an interesting demonstration of unintended consequences. There would be a shitshown if religious targetting was allowed for less benign purposes starting with non-roommate scale housing advertisements (freedom of association lets you say "male/female/Mormon roommates only" but it is still a bad look to openly advertise).

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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