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What Ryan Giggs' Sex Life and Argentine Anti-Semitism Mean for Web Advertisers

In the U.S., few will care that Manchester United player Ryan Giggs cheated on his wife with Imogen Thomas, a model, as reported yesterday. But in the U.K. this is dramatic news because Giggs and Thomas' names have been kept secret for weeks by a court-ordered "superinjunction" that until now prevented anyone in Britain from even mentioning the ban itself.

On Twitter, however, tens of thousands read the Giggs-Thomas news back on May 8, on "Billy Jones'" account, @InjunctionSuper. Any British person retweeting those messages now faces prosecution.

This is the bizarre, shrinking world of Google (GOOG) and Twitter in foreign countries. While "superinjunctions" are likely doomed in Britain (even the prime minister thinks they're ridiculous), they're typical of the publishing environment faced by the web's biggest advertising-based brands, Google, Twitter, Apple (AAPL) and Facebook. Consider:

  • In Argentina, a court just banned Google from showing links to, and serving ads on, anti-semitic web sites.
  • Google and YouTube are censored to one extent or another in Germany (Nazi material), Thailand (disrepectful images of the monarch), Turkey (criticism of Ataturk) and China (everything).
  • In Europe, the G8 will discuss ways to "civilize" the internet this week. That discussion is couched in terms of copyright law, but Google also faces antitrust action in Europe.
  • In Egypt, former dictator Hosni Mubarak infamously "turned off" the internet in a doomed attempt to thwart the revolution in its early days.
These aren't just political issues. Google, Facebook and Twitter all make the vast majority of their money from serving ads in one form another. Those ads appear alongside the content that users create for free and read for free. One depends on the other, and vice versa.

If you want an alarming example of this, consider the Argentina ban. A search for the word "Jew" in Google produces a page filled with antisemitic web sites. The results are so absurd and so upsetting that the only ad that runs there is Google's own apology for the results:

We're disturbed about these results as well. Please read our note here.
The note explains that Google doesn't "control" per se the pages that are sent to the top of its rankings, which are based largely on incoming links from other sites. Among the results are two non-anti-semitic sites, a YouTube clip from the movie Borat -- which is intended as a parody of East European anti-semitism -- and Behind the Name, a page of Jewish first names, of the type you'd use when trying to name a new baby.

Both YouTube and Behind the Name carry ads served by Google. So in a roundabout way, Google's ads are funding its ability to serve up pages of links to anti-semitic web sites.

This is an uncomfortable thought, but the U.S. should actually pat itself on the back for allowing Google to do this. America is one of few countries where Google can still do what it likes, no matter how offensive. Free speech is largely paid for by advertising. Advertising and speech are as closely linked in the digital age as owning a printing press and actually publishing a manifesto were in the analog age. There is no free content, and no free speech, without the funding from the advertising that rides alongside it.

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