Google’s sponsorship of Advertising Week Europe wasn’t meant to turn out like this.
A headline session, hosted by Google’s Matt Brittin, turned into a news conference as the mainstream media grilled the internet giant’s EMEA boss about YouTube’s brand safety woes.
Brittin was schooled enough in crisis management to offer a public apology and promise a three-step action plan.
But when he said YouTube had been looking "for some time" at the problem of ads appearing in front of inappropriate content, such as jihadist videos, he sounded like the frontman for a company that has been deaf to the problem.
Hate speech may form a minuscule amount of the 400 hours of video content that is uploaded to YouTube every minute but that’s no reason to tolerate it – especially when this story has been on the front pages of Britain’s newspapers for six weeks now.
And, yes, newspapers still matter. Just ask George Osborne, Britain’s newest editor. The Times, which admittedly has the interests of its parent company at heart, deserves credit for exposing the hate speech that has been allowed to fester on YouTube – in some cases, for years – and how brands are inadvertently funding that through ads.
Google has now promised to appoint ‘significant numbers of people’ to police YouTube content
When the UK government, banks and other household names "pause" their adspend with YouTube, Google’s chiefs in Silicon Valley must know they have handled this wrong. Let’s not forget the UK is Google’s biggest market outside the US and worth $7.8bn (£6.2bn) or 9% of global revenues.
Digital advertising executives offer lots of explanations for why YouTube has not done more to tackle hate speech. The people who post such videos are canny at finding ways to avoid being tagged and detected by Google’s automated tools. Some ads from big brands that appear in front of hate videos may get just a handful of impressions. But enforcing the most exacting standards could stop the next Zoella from breaking through, apparently.
Google, Facebook and other platforms cannot avoid the fundamental issue – the power of publication and broadcast comes with responsibility and freedom of speech has limits. Deferring to the algorithm and relying on users to flag problems is passing the buck.
They are media owners and losing control of their inventory, even a fraction, is not good enough. Google has responded belatedly by promising to appoint "significant numbers of people" to police YouTube content and vowed to restrict where ads appear. It’s a wake-up call for all digital media owners.