The “family safe” censorship

By Vadim Dovganyuk

I have to clarify something. If you’re someone who has been reading my blog longer than just today, you may notice blog posts I have previously published have gone missing. I’m sad to confirm that this blog has been hit by an indirect form of censorship.

Previously I always wrote from the heart and without truly thinking about the exact usage of words I wrote. This may seem weird to say, but what you have to understand is that every single word you write can negatively impact your blog in many sort of ways. In this blog’s case, it has to do with the advertisements.

On this blog we use Automattic Ads, also known as either Jetpack Ads or WordAds. They’re basically a middleman-service. They partner with services like Google’s Adsense, Verizon Media’s Yahoo Ads, Xandr’s AppNexus, and several others. And through them they use publishers, like myself, to publish various advertisers’ ads on blogs. But there is an important twist, like the fact that Automattic takes away the need to filter out malicious ads manually. As, yes, you will need to do this on platforms like even the highly popular Adsense, at least if you care about the visitors of your blog more than just the revenue. However, they also let you specify the locations of the ads on your blog, which has in fact become rather rare in more recent years. Those websites with far too many ads are quite often caused by the advertisement networks, not the website owners. Although, there are always website owners who are all about the money.

Anyhow, Automattic Ads has always had pretty clear rules, with 1 exception. They use a definition known as “family safe”. Which is already a weird term, but gets truly cryptic by adding what Automattic’s terms of service specify as well, which is “as determined by us in our sole discretion.”
So, what does “family safe” even mean? In reality, for some weird reason Automattic is not actually able to answer this question, instead they refer to what Google has to say about it, which is pretty much the definition as what most of us actually would refer to as “child-safe content”. Meaning anything that you wouldn’t want your child to see or you generally don’t want to be seen looking to at work is regarded as not family safe. Easy, right? Well, no. As then the second part comes into play, and a lot of content which is child-safe would still not be regarded as family safe for various reasons, mostly based on specific words being used. An example would be a post about the International … Remembrance Day on 27 January. You should be able to fill in the blank yourself by me giving the date, as literally using that single word got my whole blog post blacklisted and demonetized by Automattic. And that’s not even the worst. It was also the case for a previous blog post of mine where I used a word such as g-y, because… well, somehow it is a bad word according to Automattic, I guess? And then I have not even noted the posts which were blacklisted because I wrote Greek and Arabic in them. I don’t even know what I can say when it comes to that…







Now, Automattic states they do this in name of protecting advertisers, and I can understand. Still, there is something problematic about this statement. As while reaching out to my contacts at Google, Quantcast, and Amazon, they looked through my blog and found nothing which they object to, even while giving the exact posts Automattic blacklisted. The same applies also to the one responding in name of AppNexus. So, if they are doing this to protect advertisers, why do 4 of Automattic’s main partners not agree with their decision?
My contact at Google gave me the probable answer, as she did note that the problem might be one of a specific advertiser in particular, reminding me of a situation last year during a time I temporarily had both Automattic Ads and Adsense running my blog at the same time, before Adsense forcing ad positions upon publishers. During this time, the blog post “A Day In The Life Of An Orphan | Один день из жизни сироты”, which is a translation of a video by a Russian charity, got reported to Google for either inciting violence or being hate speech by a Russian company.
Yes, let this sink in for a moment, a translation of a Russian video in support of Russian children without parental care by a Russian charity, which is praised on several websites of the Russian government, in which 2 Russian children without parental care living at a Russian children’s home in the Russian city of Moscow speak in an attempt to improve awareness of the reality of Russian orphanages is apparently regarded as inciting violence or a form of hate speech according to a Russian company. Honestly, I have experienced a lot of weird things in my life, and this is undoubtedly among the top 10 of them. I couldn’t understand why this ever would happen, and unsurprisingly when Google did a manual verification of the content, they also noticed that there was nothing wrong with my content. As Google confirmed later, they removed the advertiser of the network for actually enacting hateful practices, as I wasn’t the only one targeted by this company, they also targeted the websites of several other Ukrainian, Georgian, Belarusian, Uzbek, Mongolian, and Chinese writers over pretty much only using the word “Russian” or their language’s equivalent. Dangerous word, it seems.



The "family safe" censorship 1



Still, there remains one more problem. As if you’re not living in North America, you probably will not see advertisements on this blog most of the time. Well, apart of Automattic’s fillers. And that’s not without a reason. Among Automattic’s explanation about family safe content, they state that the definition varies from country to country. And because it is impossible to apply all these definitions, they base it on the norms of the so-called “Internet’s largest advertising market”, North America, a claim which is no longer actually factual. Choosing the norms of this specific area is undoubtedly a controversial decision. The USA is known globally for enacting far and far too much censorship. You don’t need to live in the USA to know the iconic American beep sound. In fact, American children themselves note that certain censorship are outdated, but action lacks because apparently adults know best about what is safe for children, not children themselves…
It’s understandable Automattic doesn’t apply the definitions of China, which is in fact the Internet’s largest advertising market according to official statistics, as it’s just a singular country. However, that does apply to the USA as well, seeing as we are not truly talking about the norms of North America but the USA alone. Still, how about Europe, seeing as we are talking about lots of countries, lots of cultures, and actually the third largest advertising market, which do in fact have a rather equal understanding when it comes to what child-safe is, or family safe as Automattic prefers to call it. As let’s take a moment to note the fact that most other advertising networks do in fact look to European standards when it comes to deciding whether something truly is safe towards children. Even though I know people will dislike me for saying it, the USA is a country which stands out when it comes to certain practices, especially in regards to child safety. In subjects regarding child safety it is close to never you will hear about good practices of the USA, the exact opposite even. It’s generally specifically Western European and Oceanic practices which are seen as good.
Choosing European norms instead of American would not only benefit publishers, but also advertisers, and far more important are the readers of blogs. It’s very clear while reading certain blogs that they have had their text rewritten only to apply to the ridiculous definitions of Automattic Ads family safe practices. Yes, family safe content is important, but safety practices can go too far. Just like how we know what is truly said when beeps happen in American TV shows, it is also very clear when writers are avoiding specific terms just because they are required to do so by an external party. This doesn’t benefit the reader in any sort of way. Nor does it even benefit the advertiser. As I am far less likely to click an ad when it is next to some perfectly proper text than when it is next to a text which is real, even though it may be a little less proper. Besides, the children of today are used to a lot more than certain adults seem to think. If I would repeat the things I said as a child on this blog, I am pretty sure I would get my whole blog removed from the Automattic Ads program in minutes.







There is a difference between enacting safety and censoring. When it comes to Automattic Ads, it has sadly become censoring. This doesn’t mean I will leave their program, unless they choose to remove me themselves as I have no true influence upon that. But even as I have removed certain blog posts to fit their practices, I do think it needs to be said that they need to rethink what they are doing. Automattic was once one of the companies who opposed censorship, but are now applying censorship themselves, even while it is indirectly.
Many companies lack a certain part of humanity. They are so disconnected from the regular society that they no longer understand what is truly normal. Many of us are not high-earners and don’t talk in posh ways. And yet, that is how the companies make it seem like they want us to talk. We are humans, not robots. Everyone has things they rather don’t want, like I personally wouldn’t want to hear about war every news report, and yet it does in fact happen. We can not fit to everyone’s demands. Life simply is not perfect. There will be moments we will read, see, or hear something we rather wouldn’t want. And unless you are on a social media website, it is not that hard to avoid. Most websites have age recommendations, like my websites always have the recommendation of 13 years and higher, just like almost all websites today have. This does mean that not everything is intended to be read or seen by children. However, most of what I write about is also featured on news reports, on TV shows, movies, video games, and even books. Are we also banning children from watching TV, playing video games, or even reading books? Don’t most adults want children to read more books? Besides, if you don’t like what someone writes, you can always leave the website. Nobody is required to read anything, it’s a choice.
It’s maybe time for companies like Automattic to stop asking what is safe and much rather ask themselves when protection is taken too far. Because even advertisement directed to children are now allowed to say more than us bloggers. When you’re a blogger about certain subjects, you are required to say certain words, which doesn’t instantly make your blog unsafe to children, it just makes it easy to get flagged by scans looking for certain words. AI is not perfect. Besides, when even media like books are allowed to say more than the blogs of today, what is truly left of our freedom?

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