Friday, June 24, 2011
Google decision snuffs out human-rights ad for sex workers
Everybody’s got an opinion on the sex industry. But when you’re Google, what you think really matters.
So when Google yanks the online ads of a small group of Dublin sex workers trying to talk about human rights for people in the industry, it’s a big statement. I’m going to have to rethink everything I thought I knew about Google.
Ten escorts launched “Turn Off the Blue Light” earlier this year, responding to a major campaign in Ireland right now to outlaw the last legal vestiges of prostitution.
The anti-prostitution campaign is called “Turn off the Red Light.” The escorts picked their name as an allusion to the blue lights on Ireland’s police cars, and the impact of criminalization.
Ireland’s prostitution laws are essentially the same as Canada’s. The sale of sex is legal, but everything else to do with the industry is a crime. As in Canada, that has led to a thriving industry that operates almost completely in the shadows.
The Red Light campaign - a broad coalition of 39 religious groups, unions, non-profits, feminist organizations, political parties and so on - is pushing for Ireland to follow Sweden and make the sale of sex illegal. Sex workers in both countries contend that only increases the risk to workers.
Desperate to be heard on the subject, a few Dublin escorts and supporters struck up their own small rights campaign and bought a Google AdWord - those paid links that you’ve probably noticed at the top of some of your Google searches.
The ad linked to the Blue Light Web site. Here’s what it said: “Turn off the Blue Light: Sex workers in Ireland need human rights, not legal wrongs.”
It ran for several weeks without issue. But in May, Google yanked the ad, having suddenly decided the content was an “egregious violation” of company ad policy.
Google contends the ad is selling adult sexual services, a sector the company prohibits from advertising (with an interesting exception for stripping or lap-dancing services).
But Blue Light isn’t selling sexual services. It’s campaigning for human rights. Unfortunately, Google won’t budge.
As if to add insult, the company then sold an AdWord to a religious organization leading a campaign against sex trafficking in Ireland. With “Turn Off the Blue Light” worked into the ad’s keyword search, the anti-prostitution site is now the first to come up on Google’s Irish search engine (google.ie) when anyone looks for information on the Blue Light campaign.
What does Google have to say about all this? Not much.
I got two very polite responses from the company’s press department after a little prodding. But neither addressed the questions I’d asked - like why an ad for workers’ rights is considered to be selling sexual services just because the workers happen to be escorts.
Blue Light knew its tiny Google ad wouldn’t make much of a splash in the face of widespread and aggressive opposition. But it was better than no voice at all, says a campaign organizer I talked to this week.
The sex workers appealed Google’s decision. They lost, or at least presume they did. Google said they’d get an email from the company within three days if the appeal was successful, and no notice if it was rejected. The three days came and went a while ago, with no further word.
The sentiment in Ireland feels overwhelmingly against people in the industry, says the Blue Light organizer. Even the unions have joined the anti-prostitution campaign, as have a long list of women’s organizations. Google’s rejection was one more blow.
How Google managed to find the tiny Blue Light ad amid the gamillion AdWords that generate almost $28 billion a year in revenues for the company - well, that’s an intriguing question.
But as Google notes in its correspondence with Blue Light, the company acts when it gets complaints. And it obviously feels little compunction to verify the accuracy of a complaint before it acts.
Responding to my interview request, Google first sent me an email detailing how it handles political ads, noting that it strives to be neutral and fair. I hope CEO Larry Page reads that policy with more intent sometime soon.
The company followed up half an hour later with a second email on its sexual-services policy, reiterating that escort services are prohibited from advertising.
As are legal workers who dare to speak up on their own behalf, it appears. That’s a frightening development in a company that controls the world’s information.