Goggling Google’s ban on crypto ads

February 18, 2019

June 2018 is when Google stopped ‘all’ cryptocurrency-related search and display advertising of Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs), exchanges, wallets and other industry-related offerings across their own platforms and third-party websites. Their initial announcement followed closely behind Social Media giants Facebook and Twitter (in January and March, this year, respectively).

The three announcements took their toll on the value of Bitcoin, resulting in steep sell-offs (and rebounds) each time.

Do Google actually care about their users?

Fake news stories, people abusing their services and privacy issues were only a few of the controversies that took the gloss of financial success away from this tech giant last year.

A 2017 blog post, by Google, indicated that they had taken down more than 3.2b ads in violation of its policies. It seems this ban on crypto ads comes as part of their crackdown on unregulated financial products. Google’s director of sustainable ads, Scott Spencer, said in a blogpost: “We updated several policies to address ads in unregulated or speculative financial products like binary options, cryptocurrency, foreign exchange markets and contracts for difference.”

A total 3.5m searches were completed each day, last year, generating an estimated average $0.08 per search. During this time, according to Google Global Search Trends, the term “Bitcoin” was ranked second most popular search in the ‘News’ section, and third in the ‘How To’ section (as in “How to buy Bitcoin”). With the number of searches completed (and revenue which must have been generated) to get these rankings, I’m sure this ban on crypto ads wouldn’t have been made lightly.

But it comes as no surprise that these announcements coincided with the US Securities and Exchange Commission’s public announcement regarding a ‘growing trend of fraud and manipulation’ in the cryptocurrency and ICO markets, due to their rising popularity. Recent research findings showing that as many as 80% of ICOs were fraudulent, supports this.

Given last year’s controversies, one could hardly blame the company for not wanting to be seen as complicit in this type of fraudulent activity as well.

It’s just business…

If we take a step back and look at the online market for a minute, we can see Google’s Internet of Things tool and Chrome browser has been surpassed by Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba and blockchain start-up Brave.

Brave is built on the Ethereum blockchain, and like a web browser, connects advertisers, publishers and readers using Basic Attention Token (BAT) tokens. Readers of Brave can retain their anonymity by blocking Tracking Cookies and only allowing ads they approve. They also have the option of getting paid for enabling ads via BAT tokens.

Google has already been dabbling in the blockchain space, having been ranked second on CBI Insights “Most active corporate blockchain investors” list. Their investments in blockchain start-ups include Sorj Labs, Blockchain, Ripple, LedgerX, Buttercoin and Veem. It remains to be seen how these companies will fare now that this newly-implemented ad ban prohibits their ability to easily advertise and grow their audience.

More recently Google has revealed a far greater interest in cryptocurrencies and the underlying blockchain technology. This has lead to speculation that the ad ban is not solely motivated by a desire to confront criminality, or even address other controversies plaguing them last year.

While spokespeople at Google have declined to comment on the speculation surrounding their cryptocurrency and blockchain ambitions, in May, they were reported to have approached the founder of Ethereum in the hope of potentially securing his services.

Google has already launched an ad blocker, but if they plan to use blockchain to make the browsing experience better for users, it’s unclear how they will tackle the problem of retargeting (the reason you keep seeing ads that remind you of websites you recently visited).

Google might even go so far as to establish their own cryptocurrency and network of blockchain-related currency services.

We assume Google engineers are smart enough to build algorithms that can identify the difference between an ad for an ICO and an ad for a related crypto service. So perhaps this blanket ad ban has been implemented to eliminate the competition, in line with future plans of introducing their own cryptocurrency.

Freedom of speech and ‘the little guy’

Crypto enthusiasts are already circumventing these new policies with abbreviations and changing out letters to numbers. However, perhaps a more SnapChat-like approach should be considered - where ICO advertising is banned, but not services relating to the industry.

Mitigating the promotion of a fraudulent ICO is definitely a positive thing – both for the advertiser, as it hurts the perception of their space and the end user who is now protected. But to target the whole industry, which includes legitimate businesses offering valuable services, is not.

Given Google are still advertising gaming websites and other unethical industries their blanket ban on crypto ads may simply be window-dressing. As a key source of news and information for millions it simply doesn’t make sense to block ads from an entire, albeit emerging, industry. They are not (last I looked) regulators so to act as the gatekeepers of our access to information maybe overstepping their boundaries. This is concerning, given their size and wealth.

If they launch their own cryptocurrency and related blockchain services what expectations will be required of businesses and everyone else to continue to use their services? With billions of people relying on them for their daily news and information, public officials around the globe are already taking a closer look to consider what actions their governments can take to level the playing field for other competitors.

Of course, if you’re reading this you’ve likely already got your crypto and you’ve logged in to connect your wallets to finappster because it helps you keep track of their value. And no doubt you’ll be waiting, like me, to see what happens next.

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