Why you should hold no sympathy for Google
The current witch-hunt against the online giant is both entirely necessary and way overdue, writes Raymond Snoddy
If you hold any feelings of sympathy for the online media giants now suddenly finding themselves under a searching spotlight get over it immediately. What seems like a witch-hunt is actually very necessary, long overdue and should continue with renewed vigour. The only mystery is why it has not happened sooner.
Welcome guys to a media storm - and as Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of WPP has repeatedly emphasised, when you sell advertising inventory you are media companies and publishers rather than mere technology companies curating other people’s stuff and just pumping it out.
Was it really only a week or so ago when people were starting to predict that 2017 would be the year when the kickback would begin against the social media and the notion that all things digital are always the best in all circumstances.
The whistle to launch the attack has clearly been heard and, to put it mildly, there is momentum and it is accelerating.
While sympathy would in these circumstances be misplaced, it is necessary to acknowledge the obvious - just how wonderful, and transforming for business and society the social media and associated search engines have been.
Google is the most amazing search system the world has ever seen - not least for journalists who use it about every ten minutes. This article is being researched with the help of Google.
Twitter is the perhaps the most powerful mechanism for breaking news ever invented, and Facebook, for those prepared to surrender voluntarily some of their privacy, like something out of The Circle by Dave Eggers, is clearly loved by many of its more than 1.7bn supporters.
But as has been endlessly repeated, with power comes responsibility and the greater the power the greater the responsibility.
The charge sheet is long: enthusiastic use of tax minimising schemes, trolling, fake news, collateral damage to the established media by hoovering up classified advertising, allegedly turning a blind eye to ad fraud and now, courtesy of The Times, evidence of apparently accidental profiting by Google-owned YouTube from programmatic advertising alongside extremist content such as hate crime and anti-Semitism.
From the sort of companies who pride themselves on doing no harm, like a media equivalent of the Hippocratic oath, much of this damage has happened because they are reluctant to devote the resources needed to do something about it.
As senior WPP executive, Johnny Hornby, said this week about ad fraud, it was time Google and Facebook promised to invest a “proper amount of money against a deadline” rather than paying lip service to the issue.
But almost all of this been hanging around for months, if not years, and little has achieved other than platitudes about everything possible being done and the matter is being taken very seriously indeed.
It is The Times' investigations on advertising alongside extremist videos on YouTube - even by the Government - which has provided the cutting edge that should at last shame Google into action because the revelations have already hit the pocketbook.
You can have all the panel discussions in the world at media conferences, and even Sir Martin wagging his finger, but there is nothing like 250 companies pulling their advertising to make the folks at Google sit up and pay attention.
According to The Times, Google’s stock has been downgraded by one US media analyst as a result, because the phenomenon observed in the UK could have “global repercussions.”
While they are in listening mode they cannot have failed to notice the latest headlines on Robert Buckland, the solicitor general, warning that Google could be prosecuted if it was found to have “recklessly” disseminated videos from extremist and terrorist groups.
The Government is also not ruling out heavy fines along the lines of proposals in Germany for such behaviour.
The Times may not be entirely disinterested, but the only thing that matters is whether the allegations are true or not.
Matt Brittin, Google European head, apologised this week - sort of - by saying sorry to the brands affected and naturally he insisted he was taking the issue “very seriously.”
Observers noted there was no undertaking to return money to advertisers or, more importantly, take measures however costly to spot such material in advance rather than reacting after the event when someone complains or a newspaper decides to investigate.
As Brittin said: “Of course we’re looking again at how we can improve what we are doing on enforcement. That’s a question of resources and technology and community.”
That didn’t play well with Yvette Cooper who chairs the Home Affairs Select Committee. She argued that one of the biggest and most powerful companies on the planet could afford to do far more, far faster to remove illegal or hate-filled content from YouTube.
Let’s assume that the pressure from advertisers and politicians, backed up with the threat of large fines, will produce action. That only leaves fake news, ad fraud, lack of transparency in advertising accounting, milking the value chain to the detriment of traditional media, and paying a fairer proportion of taxes in corporation tax on the agenda.
The danger is that Google will do something about the hate crime videos because they have to and then furore will die down and nothing will be done about all the rest.
At least Facebook has started introducing its third-party checking of fake news, and a “disputed news” red alert has been attached to a false “story” about hundreds of thousands of Irish being brought to the US as slaves. The link has not, however, been taken down.
As part of the pushback against 'digital at any price', advertisers should note that a new study for Channel 4 suggests that advertising on YouTube and Facebook is more expensive and less effective than broadcast video-on-demand - and that’s when you can trust the numbers.
These online businesses are unlikely to escape the current controversies until they lessen their rather arrogant reliance on algorithms and engage the power of human brains and judgement and that should include more journalist-trained sensibilities.