The founder of the popular link-sharing website Fark is publicly criticising Google for the way it deals with websites that carry Google advertisements, after a mistake led to Fark losing five months' of advertising revenue from its AdSense service.
Drew Curtis, the founder of Fark, says that in October 2015, Google suspended ads on the website after the AdSense algorithm mistakenly identified an image from a Fark forum thread dating back to 2010 about a man who was acquitted for possessing underage pornographic material in the US.
The Fark forum thread in question featured a fully-clothed image of the actress that starred in the porn film, as well as a link to the court case story on ABC.co.au, which explained that – although the actress on the pirated DVD cover looked like she was underage – she was in fact 19 years old when it was made.
The article went on the mention that the actress, from Venezuela, flew to the US and testified in person that she was of legal age when the film was made, and the man was cleared of all charges.
Although the image and the thread about the story had been live on the Fark website for five years, for some reason Google's algorithm detected the image in October 2015 and decided it was inappropriate, because the image of the woman included a tiny logo of 'Pedobear' in the corner – a cartoon meme meant to signify paedophilia.
"We took down the image in question and pointed all this out to Google Policy, who took another week to respond that the problem actually was there was a small pedo bear logo in the lower left corner. This is total bullsh*t. They specifically accused me of having committed a felony. The presence of that logo would not have triggered a felony charge. They screwed up and were scrambling to cover their butts," Curtis wrote in the latest Fark newsletter.
Google refusing to reinburse over algorithm's mistake
"What's insane about this is Google ostensibly makes all of their money from advertising, yet for some reason has customer service worse than any cable company ever dared deploy. Google's Policy team lets an algorithm shut ads off on media companies without warning and without human review – because no actual human being would have ever approved this decision.
"It is literally impossible to contact Google Policy without going through an intermediary. And even intermediaries have immense difficulty contacting Google Policy. First contact with Google Policy took two full weeks."
Curtis goes onto say that even though Google reinstated the ads after five weeks, it is refusing to reimburse Fark for the money it lost during that period, even though it is satisfied that Fark didn't do anything wrong in the first place. He also says a similar incident occurred in 2013 when Google shut off its ads over an image that it said contained "too much sideboob". Google was never able to explain what exactly it meant by that pronouncement, and in the end reimbursed Fark for its lost revenue.
"In talking with other media companies, I've discovered that my experience is unfortunately not an uncommon one. Many other sites I've talked to have had this same thing happen to them – some have even gone under as a result. They're afraid of being blacklisted by Google so they don't talk about it publicly," said Curtis.
"I'm not afraid. I'm pretty sure Google corporate has no idea Google Policy operates with such a high level of incompetence. They need to know."
Curtis is now calling on users of the link aggregation site to consider supporting it with monthly paid subscriptions because this time, no reimbursement is forthcoming, and Fark is concerned that it may not be able to continue functioning and paying its staff if things do not improve in the near future.
A Google spokesperson told IBTimes UK: "We constantly review publishers for compliance with our AdSense policies and take action in the event of violations. If publishers want to appeal or learn more about actions taken with respect to their account, they can find information at the help centre here."