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Monday, June 16, 2014

Google to Ban Ads for Legal Gun Accessories & "Dangerous" Knives: Threatens to Shut Down Sites

This morning we received an email from Google with the following title: "Google AdWords Policy Update - Weapons policy restriction."

The email, from the "Google AdWords Team," announces a new policy starting in September for those who advertise on Google Adwords, a service used to attract traffic to Web sites. It bans Adwords advertising for products such as knives "that can be used to injure an opponent in sport, self-defense, or combat" plus "Any part or component that's necessary to the function of a gun or intended for attachment to a gun
  • Examples: Gun scopes, ammunition, ammunition clips or belts" [and even bb guns!]
We certainly have no problem with Google prohibiting ads involving weapons such as nail bombs and grenades, as it does. But we see a big difference in banning ads for legal products used by many millions of Americans. The ban specifically includes sport and recreational guns and their components.

And it's not just ads that are being threatened. The email (see excepts below) includes the following: "When we make this change, any ads or sites that are identified as violating our revised policy won't be able to run."

In other words, is Google not just threatening to shut down advertising campaigns, but also to address Web sites with content about legal products (or topics?) that it finds politically incorrect? The email does not provide additional detail on the issue of the Web sites. Presumably, Google could stop running ads on sites with the disapproved content, a significant revenue hit in many cases for the site owner, or even shut down sites running on Google's Blogger. Should publishers worry the company might use its dominant search engine to make offending sites sink in search results?

This is no idle threat. As users of Blogger and Adwords know, Google rejects ads and shuts down accounts with regularity, referring to often vague policy guidelines. Appeals -- including, for example, to have a Blogger site reflecting many hours of work restored after it ran afoul (wrongly,we think) of a rule about reusing content -- are routed to customer service personnel outside the country whose written responses and knowledge of the content issues at hand are, to be charitable, uneven.

This ban will no doubt impact Web sites (and advertising campaigns) built by small businesses at great time and expense, potentially including some online stores that invested to build sites selling legal products that may now be banned. [note: We have not yet gone back to Google's existing rules to determine exactly what is being changed by the new announcement.]

To be sure, we very much appreciate Google and its services, both free and paid. But the announcement gives us pause for several reasons.

For example, in the email Google warned us that certain of our ad campaigns/sites are in danger. But it did not specify which ones or why. We can only guess. Have we offended with ads for our military history site on the long American effort to secure the Korean DMZ; our page on how to prepare for a possible war with Syria and Iran; a shuttered site we had on zombies with links to "Zombie kits" from a major knife company; the page on fly fishing in war zones and dangerous places; or something else entirely?

Presumably ads with forbidden messages and/or linking to forbidden sites will be refused. But what if Google goes after our sites directly? What topics and products are next to be banned?

Of course, Google can do what it wants with its services. What Google can give, Google can take away. This is a business, not a 1st Amendment, issue.

Let us know what you think about this Google policy -- Political correctness run amok or a sensible response to potentially dangerous products and the liability threat that goes with them?

XXXX

Check out excerpts from the email and the page to which it links:

Email: "We're writing to let you know about a change to Google's advertising policies that might affect your AdWords account.

Around September, we'll be clarifying and simplifying our policy on knives, guns, gun parts, and other weapons designed to injure others in combat, self-defense, or sport. Some products that we currently allow won't be allowed under the new policies. Examples of products that will no longer be allowed include paintball guns, airsoft guns, BB guns, gun scopes, ammunition belts, stun guns, and tactical knives...When we make this change, any ads or sites that are identified as violating our revised policy won't be able to run.
Our system identified the following accounts associated with your email address as potentially affected by this policy change:"

The email directed us to a Web page entitled "Dangerous Products and Services," which says the new standards will become effective in September. Here are excerpts from the page:

 "Functional devices that appear to discharge a projectile at high velocity, whether for sport, self-defense, or combat 
(Note that we err on the side of caution and apply this policy to sporting or recreational guns that can cause serious harm if misused, or that appear to be real guns.)


  • Examples: Handguns, rifles, shotguns, hunting guns, functioning antique guns, airsoft guns, paintball guns, bb guns

  •  Any part or component that's necessary to the function of a gun or intended for attachment to a gun


  • Examples: Gun scopes, ammunition, ammunition clips or belts

  •  "Dangerous knives"
  •  Knives that are designed or promoted as products that can be used to injure an opponent in sport, self-defense, or combat" 
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