No, Google is not attacking CPH

Levi Nunnink
Apr 24, 2018 · 6 min read

For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? — 1 Peter: 2

This is a tough time for orthodox Christians. Especially those of us, like myself, who live in a state where the government and big business seem to want to force us out of public life. It’s hard not to feel like a cornered animal. So when the small book publisher connected with my synod announces that Google is kicking them off of their advertising platform, is it any wonder that people start freaking out?

The CEO of Concordia Publishing House posted that alarming message on Facebook, which was followed up by an official statement from CPH the next day. For most people this looks like just another instance of a big tech company using it’s superpowers to bully a Christian into changing their confession of faith. “Stop talking about Jesus!” is what it appears Google is demanding. And honestly, Google has so much power here. They are essentially the gateway to All The Information. If they decided to crush CPH by dropping them in the search rankings and refusing to let them advertise, that could be catastrophic. CPH is right to be concerned.

This was specifically interesting to me because I run a company that specializes in data security and privacy. I’ve been up to my eyeballs lately in legalese surrounding customer privacy and trying to help our clients comply with new regulations. This stuff is super complicated and difficult to understand, even for lawyers who specialize in it. Lots of companies are clamping down and tightening up their policies concerning customer data and privacy.

So what was actually happening here? Was Google actually going after CPH?

Long story short: No. Not really.

It’s all about privacy

If you read the CPH statement, Google is only removing CPH ads from their “retargeting” platform.

Now, if you don’t understand how retargeting works, it’s really creepy.

In a nutshell: 1. Google knows which sites you visit. 2. They allow advertisers to show ads to people who have visited certain sites. 3. Once you visit those sites, it’s really hard to get Google to stop showing you those ads.

This is why if you visit gap.com you’re going to be seeing clothing ads for a while. They’ll show up on any site hosting Google Ads, which is a staggering number of sites. Essentially your browsing history is a goldmine of data that Google uses to sell you stuff. This is called “retargeting”.

But there’s a problem and it’s all related to privacy. Let’s go through some hypotheticals:

  1. Say I’m a wife in an abusive marriage and I Google a divorce attorney and click on a website. What if my abusive, easily-angered husband gets home, opens the computer and finds a ton of retargeting ads for divorce services and he attacks me?

I think you can see the problems. There is a huge potential for compromising very sensitive data by making it targetable by online advertisers. In some cases this could lead to devastating personal consequences for someone who simply clicked a link and Google or their advertisers could be legally liable.

Google is playing a risky game here by even doing retargeting. Europe is passing legislation (look up “GDPR”) to shut this sort of thing down. That’s why Google’s policy for retargeting is so strict. It doesn’t allow for any sensitive subject matter including religious belief but also including: “Negative financial status”, “Relationships“, “Abuse and trauma”, “Sexual orientation”, “Political affiliation”, “Race and ethnicity”, “Marginalized groups”, “Transgender identification”, “Birth control”, etc.

If Google is out to attack Christians with this policy, they’re also attacking Democrats, Republicans, all races and ethnicities, and the LGBT community. That’s a pretty ambitious group to go after.

Let’s be persecuted for the right reasons

As innocuous as CPH’s ads might seem, they were actually violating Google’s clearly stated policy, which is written to protect customer privacy. That’s a noble goal for Google. This is a good thing for Christians. Respecting our privacy is something we should really care about.

If you read Google’s retargeting policy, they state:

“We consider identity and belief systems to be deeply personal and complex. They’re highly dependent on diversity of cultural norms, geography, history, and personal life experiences. We also understand that how one identifies or what one believes can be used to segment users based on judgments or stigmas.

We want ads to provide a positive experience and to be informed by users’ interests rather than by who they’re perceived to be as a person, so we don’t allow personalized advertising based on a user’s fundamental or intrinsic self-identity or their belief systems. Such identities and beliefs can include inherently private classifications of one’s self; classifications susceptible to stigmas, discrimination, or harassment; membership within groups that are susceptible to stigmas, discrimination, or prejudices; and personally held belief systems.

Advertisers can’t use identity and belief categories to target ads to users or to promote advertisers’ products or services.”

We might disagree or agree with that but it’s very clear. CPH in using the retargeting platform for religious content was violating their contract with Google. To be clear: They can still advertise with Google. Just not on the retargeting platform. The retargeting platform allows for a narrow set of content and unfortunately CPH’s explicitly religious ads don’t fit those guidelines. Because the law surrounding this is complicated I’m sure CPH feels unfairly singled out. But if you look at the actual policy, it’s a good one and pretty fair to everyone.

I remember when I was once shipping my luggage from Poland to the USA, I wrote on the shipping manifest that my luggage contained “a crucifix”. The shipping company quickly told me that they wouldn’t ship the crucifix. Indignant, sure that my religious liberty was being violated, I called up the company and complained. A friendly representative explained to me how they were unable to ship any religious items because of the issues that created with international customs. They were just too small of an operation to deal with the potential complications of shipping a stack of Bibles into China for example. They just wanted to get my luggage to its destination without any problems and including religious items created problems. And besides, I had agreed that my luggage wouldn’t contain any religious items when I checked “I agree” to their terms and conditions. So I was breaking my agreement. I wasn’t suffering for my religion. Sometimes we actually do need to read the fine print.

So, yes, we will suffer for Christ. I’m sure we’ll have lots of opportunities in the near future. But, before we rouse the mob and call the lawyers, let’s just make sure we’re actually suffering for Christ and not just because we’re using the wrong software platform.

Update (4/25):

Joe Olson in the comment thread of Gene Veith’s blog makes the point that Google’s retargeting Terms & Conditions might violate California Civil Rights laws. I’m officially speaking outside of my expertise on this but it does look like there could be a conflict from a simple reading of the law and Google’s policy.

Again, this doesn’t mean that Google is specifically attacking CPH. But there could be issues with their remarketing policy.

For reference:

Levi Nunnink

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I’m a Lutheran layman currently living in California. I occasionally write about theology here. Try to contain your excitement.