University of Maryland law professor Frank Pasquale says Google has tried to have it both ways: sometimes it portrays itself as a simple utility and a mere conduit of its customers’ ads, but other times it presents itself as a content provider that can and should exercise control over the ads it shows.
“Whenever Google is accused of abetting or enabling copyright infringement or defamation, it says, ‘We’re just [connecting people] like the phone company does, and you wouldn’t sue the phone company over this,’” says Pasquale. “But when people say, ‘If you’re a common carrier [utility], you should take all ads,’ Google will say, ‘No, we’re like a newspaper and we should have carte blanche over what we publish.’”
With payday loan ads, Google is characterizing itself as the watchful online guardian. The company has said it banned the ads to protect its users because “research has shown that these loans can result in unaffordable payment and high default rates.” (Google declined to comment for this story beyond saying that it constantly reviews its AdWords policies and updates them ”when necessary.”)
Google also seems to have been influenced by advocacy from a large coalition of civil rights, digital rights, and financial reform organizations. In late 2015, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and other groups sent Google reports detailing abuses that often accompany payday loans—among them fraud, unauthorized transactions, and long-term indebtedness. “We said, ‘This is a problem, and we want to talk to you about this,’” says Alvaro Bedoya, the executive director of Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy & Technology, who participated in the outreach campaign. “There were long conversations with Google and a lot of bringing this research to their attention over the course of a couple of months.”