This is the first article in a two-part series.
Like most Americans, I use Google's search engine several times a day without so much as a second thought. It was only in 2007 that my company's relationship with Google, Inc. temporarily escalated to that of a full-fledged customer, when Think Computer Corporation became yet another a Google AdWords advertiser. (AdWords advertisements appear on the right side of the main Google search results.) Sadly, the several ad campaigns we tried during this brief experiment failed miserably to bring in any new revenue, and so I personally went back to being just another user of Google's search service -- at least until March, 2008. That's when my company signed up for the flip side of Google's advertising juggernaut: AdSense. In anticipation of a new product, Think had acquired a brand new domain name that was unexpectedly receiving a high volume of internet traffic. Instead of paying Google for Think's ads, I thought it might make more sense for Think to get paid for displaying Google's.
Everything went according to plan until 11:00 A.M. on December 9, 2008. With a single click, a faceless Google employee decided that Think Computer Corporation's membership in the AdSense program "posed a significant risk to our AdWords advertisers," and the account was disabled with no warning. Trying to sign into the AdSense management site brought not the familiar user interface, with its limited account payment records and reports (including what Google currently owed Think, which amounted to approximately $721.00), but the following unhelpful statement, and nothing more:
Your AdSense account for this login is currently disabled. We recommend checking your email inboxes for any messages we may have sent you regarding your account status. Sometimes our messages can be caught by email filters, so please be sure to check the Bulk/Spam folders of your email accounts as well.
If your account was disabled for invalid click activity, please visit our Disabled Account FAQ for more information.
Return to AdSense home.
Knowing only that I was somehow posing "a significant risk" to advertisers, I e-mailed Google to ask about exactly what had happened. An errant automated response told me that my records could not be found. Going back and using the on-line appeal form on the AdSense web site similarly yielded no result; not even a confirmation that the appeal had been received. In the appeal I offered to send Google hundreds of pages of log files to prove that no fraud had taken place, but no one replied.
More than once, I tried calling Google at its corporate offices in Mountain View. Invariably the person on the other end of the line sounded like they were approximately my age, and there's a chance I might have even gone to college with some of them, but despite all of those similarities the difference in bureaucratic flexibility could not have been more vast. While I was capable of authorizing any action on behalf of my company, Google's overachieving receptionists were not even permitted to transfer my phone call to AdSense customer service. There was no AdSense customer service. Even if there had been, it would not have mattered much. I also couldn't be transferred to any of the engineers who worked on AdSense. Or product managers. Or executives. It made no difference that I was also a paying AdWords customer.
Trying a more aggressive approach, I tried instead to be transferred to the legal department. That, too, was not an option. Despite the clear existence of the legal department, I was told again and again that I was not allowed to speak with anyone in it. For the time being, I gave up.
Two days after the account was disabled, on December 11, 2008, Google's AdSense team posted a message on its blog introducing a new system called "AdSense for Domains." Unlike normal AdSense ("for Content," as it was then re-branded), AdSense for Domains was designed to be used by web sites that were effectively blank. When I had tried to sign up for it previously, given that my domain name needed exactly such a service, it had been "closed"--code for "available to a limited number of companies with large numbers of domain names." Now, I was once again enraged since Google could have easily allowed me to switch over to their new service if they had merely waited two days.
Another flurry of phone calls to the AdSense employees who had written on the corporate blog got me nowhere. I left voicemails about my disabled account diligently, to no avail. I even called AdWords customer support, intentionally asking for the wrong department to see if a real human being could help. These efforts netted a relatively quick e-mail rejection of my appeal form, and fairly unbelievable recordings of telephone calls with Google employee Adam C. When questioned, "Can I just ask in general why you guys have a support team for AdWords, but not AdSense?", the knowledgeable Mr C. replied, "I do not know." When asked, "Is there a project manager," he replied, "There's no one I'd be able to transfer you to." I was able to get an e-mail address for the legal department, so I e-mailed email@example.com never received a reply. In the meantime, I tried to figure out what to do with my web site since I couldn't use AdSense anymore.
I found Sedo, a European company that had a contract with none other than--you guessed it--Google AdSense--to display advertisements on placeholder web sites. By signing up with Sedo, I could once again use AdSense, but with one small catch. Since Sedo was the middleman, my effective rate of payment per click was somewhere between 1/5,000th and 1/10,000th of what it had been previously. Despite all of its well-meaning claims about its Terms and Conditions, it appeared that Google was willing to pay for my web site traffic after all--so long as it wasn't me receiving the money.
I'd already posted once on the AdSense Forums, where thousands of AdSense partners regularly asked questions and voiced gripes about the program, so I thought it wouldn't hurt to post again, hoping someone from the Google legal team might see my concern. Again, there was no reply.
I looked up the profiles for the "AdSense Experts" who answered questions in their official roles as forum moderators. Each expert had a different crayon stick-figure picture, and (useless) information about their favorite food or town, but no contact information--not even an e-mail address. With undoubtedly hundreds of employees working on advertising alone, all of them completely unreachable except in heavily scripted contexts, Google's amazing money machine was starting to look a bit more like the type of Potemkin Village the parents of the company's founders had fled decades before.
I spoke with Adam C. of AdWords once more on the phone. After pointing out that in the United States of America, the accused are generally given the right to know both the crimes they are being accused of, and the identities of their accusers, Mr. C. responded by saying that such thinking did not apply to Google's terms of service. Effectively, Google's position was that it was above the law, and if not any law in particular, then at least the spirit of the law. Irked, I decided to find out if such a position was tenable.
On January 15, 2009, I walked over to the Santa Clara County courthouse in Palo Alto, which conveniently fell within the same county lines as Google's home of Mountain View, and filed a civil small claims lawsuit for $721.00--the amount Google owed Think when it disabled the account--using form SC-100. For a total of $40.00 in court fees, I arranged for Google, Inc. to be served by certified mail. The hearing was scheduled for March 2, 2009.
Since lawyers are not permitted in small claims court, Google instead sent Stephanie Milani, a Litigation Paralegal. During the short last-ditch-resolution period before the hearings on the afternoon schedule began, Ms. Milani argued that I must have done something wrong to deserve my fate. When I asked her what, she didn't know. The AdSense engineers had not told her.
"Google can terminate your account for any reason," she told me.
"Not any reason," I said. "Not because I have blue eyes. Or brown eyes." After being told to quiet down by the courtroom guard, we decided that we had reached an impasse, exchanged documents, and went back into the court room.
Arguing before that day's pro tempore judge, I pointed out that my company had done nothing wrong to deserve termination of the contract, that Google could not prove any wrongdoing, that Google's fraud detection algorithm was imperfect by definition (since one cannot intuit moral intent through mathematical analysis), that advertisers must already agree to bear risk as part of the AdWords terms and conditions (clause 5), and that Google had gone to great lengths (including eliminating the ability to view account records) to make it difficult to dispute anything--all while owing Think money. In fact, terminating accounts for "posing significant risk" just when they started to earn significant amounts of money seemed like a great way for Google to cut accounting liabilities in a difficult economic climate. After my explanation, the judge had a question.
"What was the reason Google gave you for disabling your account?"
"Beyond, 'posing a signficicant risk to advertisers,' they didn't give a reason." I said. "I don't know."
Google's Ms. Milani didn't know either. She argued that advertisers had already been refunded my $721.00, even if they hadn't asked for a refund. She claimed that Google could terminate accounts for any or no reason, and that I had agreed to such terms by signing up for AdSense in the first place. She even said that I'd admitted to violating the terms of service when I sent in my appeal form, because I had mentioned that my new domain name was only a placeholder site.
In fact, clause 6 of the AdSense for Content Terms and Conditions does not allow Google to terminate accounts for "no" reason--only "any" reason. Much to my amusement, the judge interrupted her to make a point that sounded familiar.
"But you couldn't terminate my account because of the color of my eyes, could you? I have brown eyes. You couldn't terminate my account because of that."
Ms. Milani reiterated her previous arguments, but the judge didn't buy them. "I don't think I have the power here in Palo Alto small claims court to make you reinstate his account, but I think you owe this young man $721," he said finally. "I think there might be money in Google's treasury for that."
In the end, printed on a baby blue sheet of paper by the clerk's aging dot matrix printer, the judgment was actually entered for $761.00 total, due to the $40.00 court costs. I couldn't help but to smile in front of the judge.
"But it's not fair!" Google's paralegal protested. "What if everyone whose account was canceled sued Google?"
It's a valid question. Yet until Google changes its policies to become more transparent, which might also reassure skeptics that AdWords and AdSense, which have oddly limited reporting capabilities, aren't just two sides of the same ponzi scheme (for why else would one want to terminate legitimate accounts with high monthly liabilities when they're supposed to be making money for Google on each click?)--I will give this answer:
Maybe everyone whose account was canceled, should.
Aaron Greenspan is President & CEO of Think Computer Corporation and the author of Authoritas: One Student's Harvard Admissions and the Founding of the Facebook Era.
Read the next article in this series, Why Google Bothered to Appeal a $761 Small Claims Case (and Won)