Google has said it blocked advertising on a Piers Morgan Mail Online column slamming US gymnast Simone Biles for quitting Olympic events over her mental health because of “racist comments” under the article.
Mail Online has criticised Google for taking a day to provide this explanation and for failing to provide any examples, while Morgan claimed the action “represents a disgraceful attack on free speech”.
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The original column, headlined “Sorry Simone Biles, but there’s nothing heroic or brave about quitting because you’re not having ‘fun’ – you let down your team-mates, your fans and your country”, received 9,000 comments – many from readers agreeing with Morgan’s point of view.
Google told Mail Online it stopped serving ads because it had found “some issues that are policy violations that you must fix”.
Morgan wrote that he had been told by Google that his column contained “dangerous or derogatory content”.
According to Morgan, Google has “restricted demand” on nine of his previous columns by choosing not to buy or sell ads. But this is the first time it has fully disabled its service for enabling ads, in what Morgan described as a “draconian blanket ban”.
A Google spokesperson told Press Gazette it had taken the decision because of user-generated comments under the column.
They said: “Our systems detected racist content in the comments under a recent Mail Online article from Piers Morgan so we blocked ads from showing against the article in accordance with our policies.
“The article remains on Mail Online, but advertisers using our ad tech will not see their ads running alongside it while those comments remain.”
A Mail Online spokesperson told Press Gazette in response: “It took Google a day to come up with this explanation and despite repeated requests have so far failed to provide us with any evidence of racist reader comments.”
Mail Online can apply to have ads reinstated on the page if the problematic comments are removed, Google has said.
Google’s advertising policy on “dangerous and derogatory” content applies to user-generated comments as well as articles and is designed to maintain “trust in the ads ecosystem” by protecting advertisers who do not want their brands appearing next to racist or hateful content.
Google suggests to publishers that if they cannot “put into place strong and responsive controls” on their comment sections they should move them to a separate page without advertising, allowing users to click through without endangering article monetisation.
Mail Online comments appear directly under articles with the message: “The comments below have not been moderated.”
Mail Online is signed up to the Independent Press Standards Organisation, which regulates reader comments, but only views them as “editorial content” once they have been moderated.
“Where comments are not pre-moderated, they fall into our remit when a publication has had the opportunity to review any specific comments under complaint, and following this review, they remain online,” IPSO says.
The proposed Online Safety Bill, designed to force major online platforms to remove and limit the spread of illegal and some “legal but harmful” content, specifically puts news publisher content including reader comments out of scope.
Tech giants will have a statutory duty to safeguard UK users’ ability to access journalism on their platforms.
Earlier this year the Mail filed an anti-monopoly lawsuit against Google in the US, accusing it and parent company Alphabet of unlawfully acquiring and maintaining “monopolies for the tools that publishers and advertisers use to buy and sell online ad space”.
It warned: “Google controls the ‘shelf space’ on publishers’ pages where ads appear, and it exploits that control to defeat competition for that ad space.”
Google called the Mail’s claims “completely inaccurate” and said Mail Online authorises dozens of other ad tech companies to sell and manage its ad space, including Amazon and Verizon.
Picture: PA Wire/Jonathan Brady