According to NBC, a campaign by a British non-profit called the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) was the catalyst that caused Google to demonetize Zero Hedge on its advertising platform and threaten The Federalist with the same.
“We found that lots of those companies are inadvertently funding through their advertising content that is outright racist in defense of white supremacism and contains conspiracy theories about George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement,” stated CCDH CEO Imram Ahmed to NBC.
The CCDH's campaign, called “Defund Racism,” has targetted a number of other conservative-leaning sites such including Breitbart News, WorldNetDaily, The Gateway Pundit, American Thinker and American Greatness.
Aside from being the CEO of the CCDH, Ahmed also sits on the steering committee of the British government's Commission for Countering Extremism. Created in response to the 2017 bombing of Manchester Arena, the agency was described by then Prime Minister Theresa May as “a statutory body to help fight hatred and extremism in the same way as we have fought racism.”
More recently, the commission stated that it would examine whether or not behavior that could lead to extremism and hatred could be criminalized.
Ahmed is far from the only person in the CCDH with an association with the British government. One of its board members, Kirsty Jean McNeill, served as a strategy director for former U.K. Labour party leader Gordon Brown. During Brown's tenure as Prime Minister, McNeill also served as a special advisor to his office.
Meanwhile, a former director of the CCDH, Morgan James McSweeney, is now the chief of staff of Labour Party leader Kier Starmer. In addition, McSweeney also influences the party through his role as director of the group Labour Together.
That Google is considering reports from CCDH — which had clear ties to a foreign government and political party — when deciding who to demonetize from Google Ads raises questions of just how much foreign governments can influence discussion on the internet; more so, when considering that both Zero Hedge and The Federalist mostly covered American news and politics.
This is especially troubling when taken with the fact that other foreign governments, especially China's, have been using tech companies' platforms to further their own agendas. At the same time, these tech companies continue to censor and “fact-check” posts from American leaders, including President Donald Trump. (Related: Twitter to add warning labels to "misleading" coronavirus tweets – but who's fact-checking Twitter?)
In the U.S., these actions have led many lawmakers to suggest changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which protects these companies from litigation if they try to censor any speech on their platforms.
Any changes to Section 230 would involve removing protections on the basis that the platforms are no longer being treated by the companies as open forums. This also now puts them at the same level as publishers – and would be treated as such.
Google Ads, however, is not pushed as an open forum and can't be classified as a publisher either. The platform does not actually host or publish the content -- Google does not have the power to directly censor any content they disagree with on their advertising platform. All they can do with Google Ads is pull their ads from a site, preventing that site from making money off advertisements.
While the content remains online, being able to pull advertisements may be a more effective method of silencing a site as it directly threatens these site's ability to pay their bills. This can end up killing a site if it isn't able to find an alternate way of making money.