Story Search Reveals Google Glitch
Tom Giordano, Correspondent - January 06, 2005
When Kraft Foods Inc. learned that its company name and Web address appeared as a sponsored link after a search on a pro-white Web site, company officials said they were appalled.
Kraft Foods isn’t the only prominent company that appeared at the Web site as a sponsored link, thanks to Google Inc.’s free search engine. Depending upon which keyword was used to search the site, other notable companies popped up, including Amazon.com, Wal-Mart, Jennie-O and Bass Pro Shops, as well as Jewish organizations, the NAACP, African-American companies and religious groups.
In short, corporations and organizations that would not knowingly connect themselves to a white supremacist group were listed as sponsored links on this organization’s search page. And this situation is repeated on Web sites throughout the Internet that use Google’s free search engine.
In researching the issue, the question of free speech entered the picture, as well as an apparent conflict over Google’s policy to prohibit certain Web sites from using its free search engine, yet taking on those same companies as paying clients to promote their products.
The process is so chaotic, that Google would be virtually unable to assure clients their names will not continue to appear at so-called undesirable Web sites in the future, says one expert.
The issue came to light after a story appeared in several newspapers published by Hometown Publications shortly after Halloween. (Hometown publishes 12 publications each week, including the Valley Gazette.) The story centered on an Arkansas-based organization called White Revolution, some of whose affiliate members had distributed fliers in predominantly white neighborhoods in Connecticut cautioning residents not to take their children trick-or-treating in minority sections, ostensibly for safety reasons.
In researching the story, the reporter visited the organization’s Web site at www.whiterevolution.com and conducted various site searches, initially for “Thanksgiving,” to see if yet another flier was in the works. Sure enough there was.
But something else in the search page results caught the reporter’s eye: To the right of the accessed page was a column titled “Sponsored Links.” At the bottom of the column appeared the words: “See your message here.”
The “Sponsored Links” column included the names and Web addresses of Kraft Foods, Jennie-O, and six or seven lesser-known companies, all offering a product or service related to Thanksgiving.
“Why would Kraft Foods, Jennie-O and the other companies listed support White Revolution?” the reporter wondered.
Kraft was unaware
That prompted a variety of other searches at the Web site for Halloween, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah (spelled a number of ways), African American, NAACP, Israel, hunting, white women and women. Every search turned up a list of companies or organizations as sponsored links. (By the way, don’t rush to the site to do your own search: Google, without notifying the Web site owner, yanked the search engine from the White Revolution site.)
It was time to contact the companies and Google to find out what was going on.
No, Kraft was not aware that its name and Web address appeared at the White Revolution Web site as a sponsored link, a company spokeswoman said.
“Wait, I’m trying to access [the Web site] now,” said Donna Sitkiewicz, director of corporate affairs for Kraft Foods North America, while talking to the reporter over the telephone. Ironically, however, she couldn’t access the Web site. “I can’t get it. Our software won’t let me. It blocks access to hate groups,” she said, promising to look into the matter.
The chairman and founder of White Revolution, Billy Roper, insists his organization is not a hate group. “As it says at our Web site, we are an umbrella coalition of pro-white organizations and activists dedicated to securing the existence of our people and a future for white children,” he said.
In a subsequent conversation, Sitkiewicz explained that Kraft has a third-party contract with Google via Norwalk-based Modem Media Inc. to have its name and Web address appear as a sponsored link when a Google search is performed using keywords associated with Kraft products or services.
After looking into Kraft’s association with the White Revolution search page, Sitkiewicz issued a written statement: “At Kraft, we’re committed to diversity - both in terms of our employee population and in serving a diverse consumer base. We’re dismayed to learn of our listing on a site that stands for ideas that are absolutely contrary to our values. While we already have a strong policy in place regarding on-line advertising and inappropriate sites, we are working with our partners to ensure that this situation is never repeated.”
No way to monitor sites
“Don’t count on it,” said Jeffrey Cohen, president of Vernon-based ImageWorks LLC, a Web-based software company.
“There’s no way to monitor it with any kind of accuracy,” Cohen said. “Google has millions of requests per minute, and there are millions of Web sites using its free search engine around the globe.” He said it is “logistically next to impossible to know when a company’s name and address will appear at a Web site during a search, or if that site is an undesirable one.”
Cohen said the cost of developing a system that would accomplish that goal “would be absolutely astronomical and prohibitive.”
Cohen pointed to the Federal Communications Commission, which has upped the fine for those who broadcast or telecast materials that are considered offensive. “To me, it’s a consumer-choice question,” Cohen said. “If you find Howard Stern offensive, don’t listen to him. It’s all right for the FCC to monitor it, but everyone’s ignoring the question of who determines what’s appropriate and what’s not.”
Cohen said he uses the free Google search engine at his own Web site, www.imagesites.com. So, after interviewing Cohen, the reporter decided to visit the technology expert’s Web site and conduct a hypothetical search by a woman who might want to read his company’s articles offering tips to women. The reporter typed “women” in the Google search field, and up came an article about the National Women’s Football League. To the right of the results page was the Sponsored Links column with Web addresses of sites with such names as “Secret Sex Seekers,” “See Photos of Hot Women,” and “Date Someone’s Wife Today.”
A quick check of the “Secret Sex Seekers” Web site, at http://adultfriendfinder.com, was enough to see that its contents would cause Google to pull its free search engine if it were being used there. Yet, it is a Google client, “Big time,” according to a spokeswoman for the Web site’s owner, Palo Alto, Calif.-based FriendFinder Inc.
The “Secret Sex Seekers” Web site claims to be the “World’s Largest Sex & Swinger Personals site” that can be accessed in English and six other languages: Spanish, French, Dutch, Portuguese, Italian and Japanese.
A disclaimer at the FriendFinder Web site warns: “This [site] contains adult material, all members and persons appearing on this site have contractually represented to us that they are 18 years of age or older.”
The “Date Someone’s Wife Today” Web site, at www.wives-in-need.com, contains suggestive photos, as well as sexually explicit stories about wives’ extra-marital experiences, as told by their husbands.
Asked what, specifically, was considered offensive at the White Revolution site that prompted Google to pull its search engine, Steve Langdon, Google spokesman, said only that “Google will not discuss details of this particular Web site owner, or details of its relationship with any of its clients.”
Langdon did say, however, that the White Revolution Web site “was violating the terms of service for our free Web search product, which provides the Google search results and ads to the Web site, and we have discontinued its use of the service.”
He said Google’s free search product “is made available so that our valuable search tool can be used by many more people. In order to use the free search tool, a Web site owner must agree to abide by the terms of the service.”
While acknowledging Cohen’s view that it would be virtually impossible to know when an advertising client’s name and Web address appears at an undesirable site, and that creating a system to do that would be cost-prohibitive, Langdon insisted such incidents are rare. But he said he had no record of how many times a year it might occur. He also acknowledged that the free Google search engine is available to Web site owners worldwide.
“When we learn of a violation [through a client or other source], we review the site and take action as necessary, as we did in this case,” Langdon said.
When Langdon was asked if his company would allow White Revolution to continue using a Google search engine to search its Web site if they paid for it, he was emphatic: “No.” He said Google would not contract “with anyone who has a Web site that violates our terms of service, either for the free search engine or under a paid contract.”
But in the same terms-of-use document, Google, based in Mountain View, Calif., has a disclaimer that says in part, “Google makes no warranty that the Google Free SafeSearch service will remove all adult themed and/or explicit sexual content from the site.” The SafeSearch product is an added feature designed to block access to undesirable Web sites.
White Revolution’s Roper, an ex-teacher with a master’s degree in history, said he believes the operative word that made Google pull its search engine from his organization’s Web site “is ‘white.’ It’s simply an anti-white terms-of-use policy.
“I’m sure [Google] would be happy to host a pro-homosexual or black nationalist Web site, or one put up by the Nation of Islam, or B’nai B’rith,” he said.
Roper cautioned that “They may not like white nationals today, but perhaps a year from now they might not like Muslims, or maybe bounce someone who is critical of the government.”
He said White Revolution had been using the free Google search engine for more than a year, “since the Web site was set up.” He said no one from Google contacted him to tell him the search engine was being pulled.
Roper said the future for Internet users “could be bleak if those who control it to a great extent decide what should be allowed and what shouldn’t be.”
The national director of one Jewish organization whose name and Web site appeared on one of the White Revolution’s search pages was more than a little upset when he heard about it.
“I think it’s a Google error, and they’ll have to figure out how to fix it,” said Andrew Rudnick, national director for Boston, Mass.-based SYJP, an acronym for Society of Young Jewish Professionals.
The SYJP, at Matzoball.org, is the nation’s largest and most successful membership organization for Jewish professionals, according to Rudnick. Founded in 1987, SYJP is a dating service that organizes trips and other activities for Jewish singles.
“It makes me feel uncomfortable that anyone would see us as a sponsored link at [White Revolution’s] Web site,” Rudnick said. “We don’t buy [advertising] space for our Web site to be linked to a white supremacy organization.
“I especially don’t like the fact that a white supremacist organization would be aware of what we are trying to do to bring young Jewish professionals together,” he said. “It’s the world we live in today. The Internet has made it a small place.”
John C. Woschenko, owner of Glastonbury, Conn.-based Lucy’s Eastern European Holiday Decorations, whose company name and Web address popped up at the White Revolution Web site in a search for Christmas, also was not pleased.
“I’m kind of ticked off at Google,” he said. “Here I am paying Google $450 a month to bring me people with value, and instead, they have the audacity to call me a sponsored link at a white supremacist group’s Web site.”
Woschenko said he plans to contact Google to complain. “I thought I was going to be hitting Christmas-sponsored links, not those of a white supremacy group,” he said.
Hometown Publications publishes 12 publications covering 15 communities in Fairfield and New Haven counties: the Trumbull Times, Monroe Courier, Easton Courier, Huntington Herald, Stratford Star, Bridgeport News, Fairfield Today, Shelton Extra, Milford Mirror, Valley Gazette, Amity Observer and Hamden Journal.
Reprinted with permission from Hometown Publications 2005
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