The story of how Google tried to censor an article posted on dotTech

google_adsense_logoHere on dotTech we participate in Google’s AdSense program, an ad network that allows website owners to display Google ads on their websites and earn commission every time a user clicks on an ad. AdSense is our main source of revenue (read: 80%+) and the reason why we use AdSense is simply because they are the highest paying ad network for medium-to-large-sized blogs like dotTech — by a long shot.

dotTech has been running AdSense for roughly five years and I’ve never really had any problems with them. AdSense is easy to signup for, easy to integrate into websites, easy to track earnings, and easy to receive earnings. Overall, it is a splendid ad network which allows webmasters to make a little extra income on the side (or a lot of income on the side, if you are large enough).

Today, however, I had an… interesting… experience with AdSense.

You see AdSense has a built-in messages module which is used by Google and the AdSense team to send publishers (aka people who signup for AdSense) messages. These messages are not forwarded to email (or at least they aren’t forwarded to my email — I’m not sure if there is an option to enable it), I often don’t read the messages because the AdSense messages module isn’t an inbox I am in the habit of checking. I checked it today, though.

Today I logged into AdSense, as usual, to check earnings for the day so far when I noticed three messages sitting in my AdSense messages inbox. I took a peak and two of the messages were equivalent to spam so I ignored them. One message, however, made my heart jump when I read the subject: “Google AdSense: You have 3 working days to make changes to your site”.

After reading that subject, instantly I thought “oh crap what is going to happen” but then I noticed the date on the message; it was a message from back in May that I never checked.

Wiping my brow at that point (because I figured if Google didn’t disable my AdSense account by now, they likely won’t), I read the whole message. To my astonishment, it was a message by Google telling me to take down our January 2013 review of YouTube Downloader MP3/Videos (a Windows 8 app from the Windows Store that allows users to download YouTube videos) because the review violated Google AdSense program policies. How, you may ask, does a review of an app in the Windows Store violate Google’s policies? Apparently, publishers that take part in AdSense cannot “provide the means to circumvent the policies of these or other Google products, such as by allowing users to download YouTube videos”:

2013-08-31_073820

If your reaction to this message is “WTF“, don’t worry — mine was the same because, essentially, Google tried to control/censor the content posted here on dotTech.

Now, to be fair to Google, AdSense and YouTube are both their products/services. So, technically speaking, they have the right to dictate the policies that must be adhered to by anyone that takes part in AdSense. And Google didn’t actually disable my AdSense account (at least not yet). However, I don’t know about you, but trying to more or less blackmail a website (aka do what we say or be banished) into taking down a review of an app (read: take down a review of an app, not the app itself) that does something Google does not want it to do is a bit… evil… in my opinion.

The irony here is the app who’s review Google wants (wanted) me to take down — which is now known as YouTube Player/Downloader – MegaTube — is alive and kicking in the Windows Store. In other words, Google didn’t bother to ask Microsoft to remove that app from the Windows Store… but they tried to force dotTech to remove a review of the app. The kicker? Google has not removed links to YouTube Player/Downloader – MegaTube from Google Search (nor have they removed links to other YouTube downloaders from Google Search):

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Yes, Google themselves still index and show the Windows Store page for YouTube Player/Downloader – MegaTube yet Google expects dotTech to remove a review we wrote on it. Hypocrisy, anyone?

I’m sure some (many?) people will disagree with me here — and, as I’ve said before, Google has the right to dictate terms for their products and services — but this whole incident has left a really bad taste in my mouth. Thankfully, so far Google has done nothing except send that message to me, but what about the future? What will Google do the next time they don’t like content posted on dotTech? I’m not going to leave AdSense over this incident (because they are pretty much the only viable ad network for websites that aren’t large enough to run their own network) but I sure am hoping for an alternative to AdSense, in case Google tries to be evil again. Apparently, freedom of speech only applies when Google is fighting off attempts to censor Google Search results; to hell with everyone else.

Feel free to post your thoughts and opinions regarding this matter in the comments below.

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28 comments

  1. JMJ

    When Brinkmann was experiencing something similar, I made a suggestion which he (proudly?)rejected. I repeat it here, especially to all of us who have expressed their righteous indignation: Let’s put our money where our mouths are and “force” Ashraf to enable our making completely voluntary monetary contributions to this site. Perhaps, then, it would be feasible for him to look to a provider other than AdSense.

    @Ashraf – You could keep the site exactly as it is so no one would miss out on anything if they chose not to contribute. I’m sure many of us would not miss a buck-or-two-or-three per month and then, like BearPup suggests, we will have had the satisfaction of having “vote[d) with [our] wallets” rather than having the “other Guy” vote for us.

    What say you, DotTechies?

    You may put me down for $0.25 per quarter. ;-)

  2. BearPup

    To be honest about it, everything Google does smacks of Big Brother, all one needs to do is look at the so-called “jokes” comparing Google’s ad policies and the Federal Government’s NSA project to see this.

    That it leaves a bad taste is a good thing (awareness is always a good thing). Now for the next step, drop Google’s AdSense. When enough people vote with their wallets, Google’s policies will be forced to change.

  3. Maddy

    I think you should read the policies carefully, i know why you got that automated email. Its was just because of this keyword in your title “Download MP3″. The bot took this wrong and thought that there are download links for MP3. I know many wouldn’t accept my argument, but you would better know when you will read adsense policies.

  4. Mike

    @Ashraf: VERY sorry that Google put you through this. This is partly an issue with automated technology, where common sense and “human-ness” do not enter into the picture. And also with 1000-pound gorillas pushing their weight around. At times, as you found, best just to not check one’s mail (that is, until the lights are turned off) . . . .

  5. JMJ

    [@JonE] Commonsense is missing from their calculus, though. Fact is, they included a clause in their TOS that ignores the real-world situation where everybody and his grandmother is downloading their YouTube content. That is probably why this “Alert” (appears to have) died a natural death: Enforcing it would not lead to the desired result, anyway.

    Like putting a “Stay off the Grass” sign on your front lawn on a block where there are eleventeen hundred youngsters living.

  6. JonE

    I can’t say that I have any experience with ads or AdSense, however . . . . . . .

    I say just keep “ignoring” them.

    I could be wrong but, as long as you are earning income people are clicking on the ads and as long as people are clicking on the ads one would think they won’t mess with you.

  7. JMJ

    @Daniel – That is my go-to choice, also. My back up is spelled, Vee-Ess-Oh-Three.

    Am I being paranoid in suggesting that it’s not a good idea to actually name software similar to that that caused the Alert in the first place? Isn’t Big Brother still watching and may see that as reason to punish dotTech?

  8. RealBull

    [@Ashraf]
    I wouldn’t worry too much about it. I think the email was just an automatic/generic one. They probably have used software to scan the Internet for that app’s name on many websites and assumed that you were hosting a download for that app. If you were hosting a download for that app then they probably would have already canceled your account. Asking someone to take down a review of an app is a violation of freedom of press or speech (from the way things that are going lately, do we still have those rights?). It may also serve as a “scare” tactic to make you take down the review in their favor. Yes, companies will do things like that and when you confront them, they’ll make an excuse that they didn’t mean it or it was a mistake…BS. If they really want you to take down the review, then I say “F” them and try to find someone else like AdSense.

  9. Donna

    I think they have someone motoring sites and then send a typical form email. I think the reason that your AdSense is still up and kicking is your revenue from using AdSense is their revenue also. One person monitors, send form emails, pushes the problem up, reviewed and “oops” we will by pass that one.

  10. Derrik
    Staff

    I think it would just be wise to turn the article into unpublished mode, appeal it, and see what they say. Even if it is censorship, it is in their TOS. Can’t really argue with that.

  11. JMJ

    What’s ironic about this “controversy” is that this type of software probably produces MORE revenue for Google/AdSense that if it did not exist: YouTube accounts for some ungodly volume of Internet traffic (in the U.S., I think it’s upwards of 40%). People searching for YouTube downloaders probably generate huge numbers of paid-clicks in the process of looking.

    Ashraf, Is this a plausible scenario?

  12. Joe

    It just shows how insensitive google is, and how they are trying to rule the net, and those who use it. They have no qualms about making users personal information available to the government, (via our gmail accounts) and our search content. That is why I have started using duckduckgo, and startpage….to hell with google..

  13. Ashraf
    Author/Mr. Boss

    [@John] Thanks, I didn’t know the same thing happened to Martin.

    [@Seamus McSeamus] Ditto.

    [@JMJ] I agree with you. AdSense (and YouTube) is their service and they have the right to dictate terms. I obviously agreed to those terms when signing up for AdSense (although I had no idea writing about YouTube downloaders was a violation). My point of this wasn’t to thumb my nose at Google or to whine about Google’s terms but rather to point out their hypocrisy.

  14. JMJ

    I put on my asbestos long underwear so I’m ready for what will probably come next.

    In this instance, I come down squarely on the side of Google. You entered into a contract with them, Ashraf, that forbade your doing what you did. You can parse the meanings of “reviewing” and “provide the means to circumvent…” to arrive at the conclusion that they are being dictatorial, heavy handed or evil.

    The fact is, however, that beyond your contractual violation, you provided information about how users could deny them the same ad revenue on which you depend. They need clicks and visits just like you do. If their videos can be disseminated without visitors going to their site, don’t they lose revenue and control over their product?

    It’s akin to your publishing the fact that there is a tool available to all that can bypass my homes’ security systems and, in addition, telling them where to get the tool. You are not committing, or advocating the committing of, a burglary but you are providing information to facilitate one.

    Generally, in such cases, the aggrieved party has no recourse but to ask you to stop or to go to court and seek an injunction forbidding your publishing such info. In this case, they had your wallet. Frankly, I would have done the same as Google and added the question: What the hell were you thinking?

    The fact that, to date, they have not acted does not mean they will not. Your failure to remove what they consider violative content, or to respond to them in any manner, is a big no-no. I strongly suggest that you reconcile the situation with AdSense by now removing the offending review or get them to look at it the way you want them to. Your writing this follow-up article perhaps makes that even more urgent. They’ll ‘see’ this article and may construe it as your thumbing your nose at your contractual obligations, their advising you of violating them and, then, publicly laughing at them, to boot.

  15. Seamus McSeamus

    If Google had removed the offending software from their own search results, I would say they might have at least the pretense of a reason to ask you to remove your article. However, since they didn’t, it seems very hypocritical, and somewhat reminiscent of gangs who collect protection money from businesses.

    Most likely, though, since no action was actually taken by the evil Google (Yes, they have long since gone over to the Dark Side.), the message you received was an automated response triggered by a bot that sniffed a keyword in an article title. I’d still expect some sort of follow up, though, unless the warning’s only purpose is to frighten people into compliance, with no intent of taking any further action if it doesn’t work.

  16. Tom

    I hope Google doesn’t require you to police comments, because… my favorite Youtube downloader is the ever-spammy aTube Catcher which is available here:
    http://atube-catcher.dsnetwb.com/

    Whine about that Google… or is your response to send the NSA gatekeepers to my door…

    @Ashraf… keep an eye out for Google’s black helicopters hovering over your home…

  17. John

    Evil to me has definite religious connotations attributed to it (the devil) . I’d say they have a department that is responsible to look out for their interests, and as you noticed, their partner, MS, is not someone they would hassle. It may have been an error in judgement for whomever originally flagged your site, that’s why no follow up, and too lazy to retract their error? A bit optimistic, huh.