Google’s Googlee to its Googleness: Duty of Care Breached

“But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” – Bible Verse Luke 12:48 (New International Version)

Believe it or not, but this article was inspired by or you can say the initial touch point of this article is the Ted Talk by David Puttnam on “Duty of Care”. I highly recommend you to watch this for an enhanced experience of what you about to read afterward.

‘Duty of Care’ is the responsibility of a person or business to act in a reasonably careful way while dealing with others i.e. to act as if a reasonable person would act in a given situation. This moral code of conduct has also been treated as a jurisprudence of common law. Forget about the law, you don’t even have to get that far. Ethics teach us to not to do anything which is against the interest of others. Then how can one hide behind ignorance? Don’t you think there is a difference between mistake and negligence!

Can we say Google is guilty as charged!

In 2017, issue of the appearance of countless ads on Google pages (and Youtube videos) of extremists, hate speeches and other offensive contents came to light. Videos posted on youtube are not manually checked by Google because of the sheer volumes and thus, rely upon technology (scanning titles, images etc.) and old crowdsourced approach. I know it sounds strange but even in today’s digital era, many brands don’t know where their online ads are running because of programmatic advertising. Some highlights for you:-

  • “Verizon’s ads were featured alongside videos made by Egyptian cleric Wagdi Ghoneim, who was banned from the United States over extremism, and the hate preacher Hanif Qureshi, whose preachings were said to have inspired the murder of a politician in Pakistan”, Guardian said.
  • French media group Havas said, “We have a duty of care to our clients in the UK marketplace to position their brands in the right context….”
  • L’Oreal ad, promoting Prince’s Trust showed next to a video of hate preacher.
  • Governments summoning Google when its ads were shown in a similar bad light.
  • Channel 4 views, “It is a direct contravention of assurances our media buying agency had received on our behalf from YouTube.”
  • Head of WPP (British PR MNC), Sorrel argued that Google was ignorant about how its algorithms and advertisement work despite the long-held concerns from marketing community.
  • Belkin International Inc. was asked in a tweet of why its ad was on Breitbart News Network, a right-wing website.

Needless to say, all of them pulled their ads. Others were AT&T, Pepsi, Wallmart, Kellogg, Allstate Corp, Warby Parker, Mcdonald’s, Audi, Starbucks, Volkswagon etc.

On 17th March 2017, Ronan Harris (Managing Director, Google U.K.) posted a response on his blog with the title, “Improving Our Brand Safety Controls”. He wrote, “….We invest millions of dollars every year and employ thousands of people to stop bad advertising practices. Just last year, we removed nearly 2 billion bad ads from our systems, removed over 100,000 publishers from our AdSense program, and prevented ads from serving on over 300 million YouTube videos…..However, with millions of sites in our network and 400 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute….we know we can and must do more…..We are committed to working with publishers, advertisers, and agencies to address these issues and earn their trust every day”.

Other measures taken for damage control were lowering the rank of searches with negative news on Google, backing Gay workers, funding favorable studies like “It’s Lit: a guide to what teens think is cool” to name a few. The most important step was observed from the Kent Walker’s(General Counsel at Google) blog entry on 18th June 2017. He wrote about the four new steps that are being taken by Google to fight terrorism – (1) Devoting more engineering resources to remove extremist content (2) Youtube’s Trusted Flagger Programme – Increasing independent experts (3) Issuing interstitial warnings for the content don’t directly violate policy. These will not be eligible for comment and monetization. (4) Encouraging Creators for Change Programme for promoting youtube voices against hate.

But this is not the only time when Google did something wrong unknowingly. It has a lot of red in its ledger. Some of them are:-

The last one is the biggest blow to its brand image & pocket, as today EU Competition Commission fined 2.4 billion euros (see the below video for BBC news bulletin and the verdict by EU competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager herself).

Google (along with Facebook) was also criticized for not able to condemn fake news during 2017 US elections.

According to Brandfinance, earlier this year Google replaced Apple and became the most valuable brand with $109.47billion worth. But after looking at the above developments (some of which are very recent), perhaps a newly updated study is needed.

What do you think? Can they be charged for the guilt of negligence? Did they breach the Duty of Care? Or were these done knowingly for profits?

 A Third Entrant to Solve The Problem

According to experts, the Internet is going to take over televisions with ad spending of around $200bn and $190bn respectively. ‘Recorde’ showed the top 30 company’s global ad revenues with Alphabet $79.38bn, Facebook $26.89bn, Comcast $12.92bn and Baidu $10.36bn. An astonishing fact is 85% of every new dollar in this industry in Q1 went to only the top 2, according to an analyst from Morgan Stanley. Reasons could be found in the research paper released by Princeton which states that Google & Facebook combined, accounts for all the top-10 third-party data collectors.

Let’s talk about the possibility of a third entrant. But the third one should be big enough who can influence the existing norms of fair play set-up by the top 2 giants. Though, no signs of happening it in the near future because a majority of the share of growth is going to the top 2. But keep an eye on Chinese companies – Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu, Sina and Sohu who collectively almost as big as Facebook (because of the dominance in the Chinese market which is not yet tapped by Google and Facebook) but their presence in outside world is nowhere close to the 2. Other than that there is almost no chance. Even the combined estimated share of Verizon, Microsoft, Snapchat, Twitter and Amazon’s in outside China is only 7% in 2017-18. (Figures are taken from ‘Wall Street Journal’)

But things got interesting when Tim Armstrong in recently held ‘Cannes Lions’ festivals shared his plan for Verizon’s Oath (holding company for AOL & Yahoo) to capture 2bn customers and a target of $10bn-$20bn ad revenue.

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