The leaders of more than a dozen of the country's top philanthropic organizations, including the Rockefeller Foundation and the Ford Foundation, wrote to Google CEO Sundar Pichai on Wednesday night, criticizing his company for placing ads for prominent charities on websites that promote misinformation.
The letter points to new research from a group called the Global Disinformation Index, which found that ads from organizations like the Red Cross and Save the Children have been running alongside conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and calls to jail Dr. Anthony Fauci on far-right websites like TheGatewayPundit.
"Charities, which depend on online advertising for donations to keep the lights on and serve their constituencies, have their ads placed on websites that openly spread hate speech, promote dangerous falsehoods about the spread and prevention of COVID-19, and even encourage violence," the letter reads. "In too many cases, this means the charities are paying Google, only for Google to damage their reputation and undermine their mission."
Among the foundations that signed onto the letter are several noted critics of Big Tech, including Open Society Foundations and The Omidyar Network. The Omidyar Network recently published several reports outlining an antitrust case against both Google's search and advertising businesses.
In the letter, the foundation executives note that charities are forced to "try to police where Google might place their names" and call on Google to "do better." They also compare what's happening with Google ads to the recent Facebook boycott, during which more than 1,000 companies stopped advertising on the platform during the month of July, banding together under the hashtag #StopHateforProfit.
In a statement, a Google spokesperson called the Global Disinformation Index's research "fundamentally flawed in that it does not define what should be considered disinformation."
"We are deeply committed to preventing harmful, dangerous and fraudulent content from monetizing while elevating quality content across Google products," the spokesperson said, pointing to a recent policy change that prohibits ads on content that "contradicts scientific consensus" regarding a health crisis. That includes, for example, claims that COVID-19 is a bioweapon created in a Chinese lab or that Bill Gates created it.
The policy against monetizing content that contradicts scientific consensus goes into effect next week. Google's spokesperson couldn't immediately say whether the stories flagged by Global Disinformation Index's report would be allowed to advertise under that policy. But several of the stories, including one promoting the unproven drug hydroxychloroquine and another accusing Bill Gates of pushing vaccines as part of his "eugenics agenda" appear to fit.
Google has written some other firm policies against COVID-19 misinformation. On YouTube, it takes down any content it finds that includes misinformation about COVID-19 "that poses a serious risk of egregious harm." Early on, Google went so far as to ban most nongovernmental COVID-19 advertising, only to reverse course following an outcry from Democrats who objected to the Trump administration being the primary source of information. It now prohibits ads from making harmful claims about prevention, unproven cures and false information about how the virus spreads, among other things. And it already has a long list of prohibited content that publishers can't run ads on, including "dangerous or derogatory content" or child sexual abuse material.
Google does permit advertisers to blacklist websites that "aren't appropriate for [their] brand." But monitoring all of the obscure sites their ads appear on and the content of those sites is a task the foundation leaders say puts too much stress on charities without the resources or expertise to do it.
"Google has an opportunity to lead the way by designing an advertising placement model that respects advertisers and does not put them into unwanted and damaging associations that undermine their good works and values," the letter reads. "Google has the resources and capacity to make a better product, without these design flaws and harmful consequences to charities and the communities they serve."
Read the letter below:
August 12, 2020
Mr. Sundar Pichai
Chief Executive Officer Alphabet Inc.
Mountain View, Calif., 94043
Dear Mr. Pichai,
We represent some of the leading philanthropic organizations in the country. We write to you today to raise our serious concerns about the way Google sells and displays advertising.
Privacy advocates around the world have raised the alarm about unacceptable violations related to the way Google sells advertising space. We share their concerns: the system is broken. It routinely violates the basic privacy rights of users. Reform is needed.
A new report by the Global Disinformation Index, a U.K.-based nonprofit that works with governments, business, and civil society to disrupt and defund disinformation sites, chronicles many examples of the damage Google AdSense can do. Charities, which depend on online advertising for donations to keep the lights on and serve their constitu encies, have their ads placed on websites that openly spread hate speech, promote dangerous falsehoods about the spread and prevention of COVID-19, and even encourage violence. All the while, Google pockets the fees.
In too many cases, this means the charities are paying Google, only for Google to damage their reputation and undermine their mission. Few nonprofit organizations have the luxury of hiring marketing specialists or global ad agencies to help them navigate the currents of the online advertising world. While we appreciate that Google may offer some benefits to small charitable groups in the form of reduced costs for ads, your ad placement model forces them to try to police where Google might place their names—something most of them have neither the resources nor the experience to handle.
Social media platforms can and must do better. Facebook, as you know, is facing a major boycott from advertisers who are increasingly outraged over that company's failure to change its policy on hate speech. Left unaddressed, this scourge not only serves to further divide our already highly polarized society, it can literally put lives at risk.
Google has an opportunity to lead the way by designing an advertising placement model that respects advertisers and does not put them into unwanted and damaging associations that undermine their good works and values. Google has the resources and capacity to make a better product, without these design flaws and harmful consequences to charities and the communities they serve.
We urge you to act now to put principle over profit and end this harmful practice.
Darren Walker, Ford Foundation
Ed Henry, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation
Ellen Dorsey, Wallace Global Fund
Joe Goldman, Democracy Fund
Joseph Zimlich, Bohemian Foundation
Larry Kramer, Hewlett Foundation
Lee Bodner, New Venture Fund
Lee Wasserman, Rockefeller Family Fund
Mark Surman, Mozilla Foundation
Mike Kubzansky, Omidyar Network
Patricia Bauman and Gary D. Bass, Bauman Foundation
Patrick Gaspard, Open Society Foundations
Dr. Rajiv Shah, Rockefeller Foundation
Rey Ramsey, Nathan Cummings Foundation
Ridgway White, C.S. Mott Foundation
Stephen Heintz, Rockefeller Brothers Fund
Stephen King, Luminate
Steve Daetz, Sandler Foundation