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YouTube u-turn on hate speech follows boycott by advertisers

Big brands force action by parent company Google. By Katie Wright

It started in the UK, with retailers including Marks & Spencer and L'Oreal, alongside the BBC and the Guardian, and now more than 250 companies are pulling their advertisements from YouTube. It's even spread across the Atlantic, with US mobile firms AT&T and Verizon joining the boycott.

An investigation by The Times discovered ads from numerous well-known brands were found to be running on the platform alongside videos containing hate speeches and expressing extremist views.

In one example, a luxury holiday firm was featured alongside a clip promoting an East African jihadist group.

Companies fear their advertising budgets are inadvertently being used to fund racists and terrorists.

In light of the discoveries, parent company Google has had to scramble to convince clients not to pull their ads permanently.

First, the digital giant's European head, while speaking at an advertising industry event, apologised to the brands affected and admitted they needed to do more.

Now, chief business officer Philipp Schindler says they are "ramping up" safeguards to ensure brands' ads don't appear "next to content that doesn't align with their values", setting out the three-pronged approach in a blog post.

"Starting today," he writes, "we're taking a tougher stance on hateful, offensive and derogatory content.

"This includes removing ads more effectively from content that is attacking or harassing people based on their race, religion, gender or similar categories".

Part of the problem at the moment, is that there's limited opportunity for advertisers to specify where their ads go, so new tools will be added to offer more control, including the ability to exclude specific channels.

"We'll be hiring significant numbers of people," he continues, "and developing new tools powered by our latest advancements in AI and machine learning, to increase our capacity to review questionable content for advertising".

It all sounds very encouraging, but is it enough to placate the hundreds of advertisers currently hanging in the balance?

Critics point out there's one measure that hasn't been addressed, that of seeking out the questionable content and quashing it.

It doesn't look likely, as it was two days after the blog post that the American firms joined the cause, and in fact some widened the scope of the criticism to include Google's own ad platform.

Along with Facebook, the search engine dominates the £11bn UK digital ad market, so it's too valuable for advertisers to abandon altogether, but much-loved brands have to be seen to be doing the right thing by their customers.

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