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Google's identity crisis at heart of ad row

Business News

BUSINESS / Business News 10 Views comments

The world of online advertising can be a dizzying world of acronyms - you start talking about Google advertising, and you end up with GDN, SEO, DSP and DBM all littering the conversation.

But one thing is clear - Google has a problem here. A serious problem that goes to the heart of what this company does, and what it stands for.

Now, you might imagine that Google would consider itself a huge player in the media world. Look in the Oxford dictionary and you'll find that "media" refers to "mass communication", and not much can fall into that category more than our social media giants.

YouTube collates a vast amount of information and content and, like Facebook, plays a pivotal role in the way news is consumed around the world. Over a billion people are regular YouTube users and hundreds of millions of videos - possibly billions, depending on which statistics you believe - are watched every day.

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And yet Google says it's not a media company. It insists it is, instead, solely a technology company, and should be regulated as such. YouTube, runs that logic, is nothing more profound than a website for allowing people to post content online, rather than a structure for judging the worth of that content. It just so happens that it's one of the three most visited websites in the world.

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There are guidelines, and users are invited to report content that they find offensive. But YouTube doesn't proactively manage the content on its platform. It just jumps in when someone complains.

What it does do, though, is charge advertisers for putting their content on YouTube, or any of Google's various other platforms. And that's why this row has such potential for changing the nature of Google, both as a company and as a service.

Advertisers spend money because they want people to take an interest in their brand, or their products. They want consumers - that's you and me - to feel positive or intrigued. What those advertisers emphatically don't want is for their new campaigns to appear next to offensive content.

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"It is frankly ridiculous that Google can take our money but not curate the content on its own website," said one executive at a FTSE 100 company to me. "They want to have the money, but not the responsibility."

It is a view echoed, most notably, by Sir Martin Sorrell, the boss of WPP, the world's biggest advertising agency. He told me Facebook and Google were "media companies masquerading as technology companies".

"The present situation is just not tenable," said Sir Martin. "They cannot just sit there with their digital spanners, watching all this content flow down their digital pipes.

"They should be subject to the same sort of regulation that other media companies face, and I think they are now starting to put new measures in place.

Google is under pressure to place third party controls on YouTube ads Video: Go Ape and Hargreaves Lansdown have pulled their adverts from YouTube after Sky News alerted the companies to the fact that they were appearing ahead of videos posted by the English Defence League. Sky's Business Correspondent Adam Parsons reports.

"A large number of our clients have expressed concern. Nobody wants to have this sort of controversy affecting them.

"Some have withdrawn their adverts, some want Google to have the chance to repair the situation. I think Google realises it has to do something."

Sir Martin also said that companies who had suffered damage to their reputation should be compensated by Google, telling me that "they are responsible for that cost, whether it is direct or indirect, and they need to compensate for the damage that has been done."

Calculating that cost could be difficult, but then there are many twists to come. If Sorrell is right, and this is the point when Facebook, Google and many others do accept that they have the responsibilities of a modern media company, they will need new guidelines, new regulation and a new way of dealing with the outside world.

And that will probably mean employing more people - real, actual, breathing people - to keep an eye on the algorithms.

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