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Here's Who Decides What's Offensive For Google

Rick Summers, principal, global publisher policies at Google, is paid to get offended.

Summers oversees the development and implementation of global publisher policies for both AdSense and Doubleclick Ad Exchange. He is, in essence, the platform’s fake news top cop. Summers and his team keep an eye out for threats that often start small, but can potentially emerge into larger, damaging affairs for Google.

Last week, Summers and his team, which he describes as a “scrappy set of nerds” comprising English majors, lawyers and engineers, also updated Google’s hate speech policy to prohibit publishers from making money off specific webpages that feature hateful or offensive content.

Although Google is using both human and automated tech to enforce the updated policy, it will be some time until it is deployed at scale. But Summers spoke with Ad Age about looking for offense for a living. Lightly edited excerpts:

How do you get to be the guy who decides what’s offensive?

We aren’t the single deciders of what’s allowed or disallowed on our products and platforms. Decisions aren’t made in isolation. They are informed by the shared perspectives and viewpoints from everyone involved in the advertising ecosystem, including advertisers, publishers, users and our own internal teams.

The offensiveness of a thing is kind of subjective. How do you set your barometer?

Our policies are built on principles, so they are not based upon whether a particular author of content sought to “offend” someone, but instead focus on the substance of that content. Through this method, our policy actions are more accurate and our messaging to publishers is clearer.

At what point does deciding what’s offensive or misleading tip over into censorship?

One key thing to keep in mind is that we’re not reviewing sites for accuracy of their content. We’re reviewing the content on a site for deception, not to check to see if the facts are accurate. Editorial decisions should be made by the publisher, not Google. Many website owners use our advertising platforms, like AdSense, to make money by running Google ads on their sites and content. Our policies help to ensure publishers think first about the user experience versus revenue. But revenue is important! The actions we take have impact on their bottom line. So it’s a balancing act.

Is it possible to police the entire internet?

No system will be 100% perfect, but we’re vigilant and always working to improve our tools. Specifically, when it comes to how we enforce our publisher policies, we’re working to develop smarter technology that allows us to be more precise, more surgical, in how we disable ads on sites. Unfortunately, crime exists on the internet—just like it does in the offline world. We review thousands of sites each day. And we only approve about 12% of all publishers that apply to be a part of our AdSense network. Keeping Google’s networks safe and clean is a daily battle and an ongoing investment for Google.

What have the last, say, 100 days been like?

This can be a 24-hour gig sometimes. Our job is very fluid. We understand that small little changes we make here can result in large, large-scale impacts to advertisers, publishers and users.

What is the most offensive thing you’ve seen?

To this day, I’m still shocked and saddened by webpages that promote or glorify child abuse. The creation and propagation of this content needs to end. I’m proud to be involved in Google’s efforts to stop the spread of child sexual abuse imagery online, specifically our collaboration with nonprofits from around the world to use our Search Ads product to deter users from searching for this content.

Has it gotten harder for you to get offended?

What I’ve learned from this job is to take a moment to understand why I’m offended by a particular piece of content or experience. Was it the substance of the content itself? The context in which it appeared? An opinion shared in response to the content that I disagree with? While it may not change how I feel, I’ve found that taking the time to dig deeper into why something offended me illuminates the underlying reason for why it triggered that reaction. My hope is that in taking this more thoughtful approach that I may, in some cases, be more cognizant of my own biases or more considerate of other people’s differing points of view.

Does a far-right or far-left news site have as much right to exist as a nonpartisan site?

Yes, absolutely. As long as it is not violating our policy, we want to have a thriving internet. Let’s take a look at ourselves 50 years ago: If we had a website in my home state of Virginia that was advocating for interracial marriage, the response to that content would be anarchy. The difference of opinion today might be tomorrow’s norm.

You were consulting for NASA before joining Google?

I was consulting with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I worked with guys that put stuff up on Mars and everything like that. I did a lot of work around strategy design, looking at procurements and figuring out how certain parts get into spacecrafts, how to make the spacecrafts faster and better.

That sounds awesome, but totally unrelated to what you do now.

Google was my dream job. I jumped at the chance to completely change directions and start working on online advertising policy. It is very humbling for me to see that Google took a chance on me based on my background, not where I had worked.

How do you decompress?

I have an incredibly supportive team at Google where we’re able to support one another when handling particularly thorny issues. My mind is running on all cylinders throughout the workday, so funny enough, I’ve found that physically running is a way to decompress by focusing on a singular activity that doesn’t really involve any critical thinking, outside of occasionally having to dodge oncoming cars at intersections.

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