Scott Pilutik

I am an attorney and consultant living and working in Manhattan, focusing primarily on church/state constitutional law. I'm a recognized expert on the Church of Scientology organization. I also have strong interests in intellectual property law where it intersects with emerging media, and free speech.

I support the efforts of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the National Lawyers Guild, the ACLU, Creative Commons, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I am a member of the New York County Lawyers Association and the New York State Bar Association. I also enjoy (watching) hockey and (doing) photograhy.

Online I can be found on Facebook, Twitter. My resume can be viewed here. I can be reached by phone at 212.645.6241 or by e-mail at pilutik[at]gmail.com.

Google terminates NYC Scientology critic site’s AdSense account

Google terminated EpicAnon.com‘s AdSense account yesterday, informing the site by e-mail:

While going through our records recently, we found that your AdSense account has posed a significant risk to our AdWords advertisers. Since keeping your account in our publisher network may financially damage our advertisers in the future, we’ve decided to disable your account.

Please understand that we consider this a necessary step to protect the interests of both our advertisers and our other AdSense publishers. We realize the inconvenience this may cause you, and we thank you in advance for your understanding and cooperation. [emphasis added]

Google’s highly successful AdSense program is a cost-effective way to place non-obtrusive advertising on your website and generate revenue. Website owners do not control which ads appear on the site–AdSense matches ads based on a site’s particular content. Thus, because EpicAnon.com is largely concerned with Scientology, ads for Scientology–Scientology is an AdSense customer–appear on EpicAnon.com, which unsurprisingly drives the Church of Scientology nuts. Although the notice doesn’t say, Scientology certainly complained to Google that its ads were appearing on a critic site—but Scientology was not motivated by the awful specter of members of Anonymous clicking through the ads to their site as they were motivated to harm the site owner economically (which it did—AdSense accounted for 80% of the site’s revenues).

AdSense makes a great deal of economic sense for both advertisers and site operators, who would find the costs prohibitive were they try to forge optimal one-to-one relationships on their own. Google, which is well-placed to direct advertisers’ messages to the right audiences, is in the middle, taking advertisers’ dollars and paying site owners a small percentage. For small, non-commercial site owners, like EpicAnon, that meager percentage is all that keeps a site afloat.

But since Google is only taking dollars from one party (the advertiser) in an AdSense transaction, it can be picky about how it chooses site owners–it doesn’t need any site in particular because there is simply no shortage of websites. It’s understandable that many advertisers wouldn’t want their ads appearing on certain types of sites (or even specific sites), but where should Google be drawing the line where it terminates a site owner from the program?

Google, despite merely serving as the middleman has a long list of content prohibitions. From Google’s AdSense site (under Site Content):

Sites displaying Google ads may not include:

  • Violent content, racial intolerance, or advocacy against any individual, group, or organization
  • Pornography, adult, or mature content
  • Hacking/cracking content
  • Illicit drugs and drug paraphernalia
  • Excessive profanity
  • Gambling or casino-related content
  • Content regarding programs which compensate users for clicking on ads or offers, performing searches, surfing websites, or reading emails
  • Excessive, repetitive, or irrelevant keywords in the content or code of web pages
  • Deceptive or manipulative content or construction to improve your site’s search engine ranking, e.g., your site’s PageRank
  • Sales or promotion of weapons or ammunition (e.g., firearms, fighting knives, stun guns)
  • Sales or promotion of beer or hard alcohol
  • Sales or promotion of tobacco or tobacco-related products
  • Sales or promotion of prescription drugs
  • Sales or promotion of products that are replicas or imitations of designer goods
  • Sales or distribution of term papers or student essays
  • Any other content that is illegal, promotes illegal activity, or infringes on the legal rights of others

I took the liberty of bolding the three vaguest prohibitions on the list, to point out that Google has set the bar in a way that enables it to terminate the account of maybe half of its “publishers.” And of course, many sites which could easily be deemed to regularly violate the AdSense policy restrictions get a free pass from Google. But not EpicAnon.net (and I believe the same fate befell another anti-Scientology site, Enturbulation.org).

Legally, there’s no reason Google can’t proscribe overbroad terms—everyone is free to use or not use Google’s service. But because of Google’s ubiquity and market dominance, the choices for both advertisers and site owners are slim, to the point where the public trust has to account for more. Remember back in the day when “Don’t Be Evil” was Google’s one overriding principle? Yeah, those days are drifting into the oblivion for me too.

By so narrowly defining what constitutes acceptable content on behalf of its advertisers, and then only enforcing that policy selectively, opaquely, and at the hidden behest of advertisers who use Google as a useful proxy in a larger game of lawfare (a game of which they’re well aware, having appeased Scientology whining as to its search engine rankings in the past), Google is Being Evil.

Much of that evil is clear from the above-mentioned prohibitions—”advocacy against any … group or organization” accounts for a huge chunk of web, and would, if the natural meaning of its language were observed, exclude 90% of political blogs from participating as AdSense publishers. But it’s relatively easy to find political blogs where 9 of every 10 posts advocate against the opposing party. AdSense members? Sure. Advocacy for anything regularly necessitates advocating against opposition to that thing, which usually appears via some public interest group. People who are for feeding starving African children are naturally against the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe. Members of Anonymous are for free speech, religious transparency, and families, and are thus naturally against the Church of Scientology.

Google selectively ghettoizes sites opposed to Scientology, punting them into the same bin as porn, white power, and viagra spam sites. This would matter less if Google was not so ubiquitous and have such a significant say in the manner of Internet content. Google is practically a public utility by this point and perhaps the laws that govern broadcast, gas, and electric companies should also govern Google to some degree.

Libertarians would be horrified if such a direct line were drawn between a company in such a new industry, even a company as dominant as Google, and the public trust. But Google is not just some passive reporter–it has become such a large part of the whole Internet fabric that its policies now directly affect content creation. By its AdSense program, it is dictating commercial orthodoxy, declaring sites such as EpicAnon as “unsafe marketplaces.” If whistleblower-style sites can’t participate as AdSense members (and there are no comparable substitute products available from any competitor), there will be fewer of these types of important sites. Google is not only dictating orthodoxy, it’s mandating complacency.

As the mainstream media further demonstrates its unworthiness of First Amendment protections by becoming subsumed by the government it is supposed to serve as a check against, smaller online media need greater consideration under the law. These outlets need more than press badges though; they need to be given equal opportunities to thrive.

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