There are a lot of claims by AdSense publishers who say Google has not paid them what they're owed. Recently, a person claiming to be an ex-Google employee described (at length) a plot by the company to keep from having to pay publishers, and shutting down their accounts ahead of payment dates. Since then, a lot of people have said this happened to them, and a class action suit has been launched against the company.
Media coverage has been highly skeptical of the allegations, which Google has dismissed as "complete fiction," but the suit remains, and the "leaker" claims to have plenty of evidence of the company's guilt.
Are you buying this whole thing? Do you believe Google executed a plot to swindle AdSense publishers out of owed money? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Last month, the leaker posted the allegations to Pastebin. It's a fairly long and detailed story, but it claims that many Google employees (including the leaker) were involved in the plot, following "direct orders of management," and that it spanned many years.
"No one on the outside knows it, if they did, the FBI and possibly IRS would immediately launch an investigation, because what they are doing is so inherently illegal and they are flying completely under the radar," the leaker wrote.
Since the leak, the FairSearch Coalition, a group made of Google competitors, which consistently seeks to have Google investigated and regulated over various aspects of its business, has indeed called for a criminal investigation into the matter.
“Google often tries to reinforce its image and reputation as a tech innovator rather than an advertising-funded corporation driven by profits,” the coalition said in a statement. “But These recent allegations are another sign that Google’s thirst for profits comes at the expense of meeting its legal obligations and commitments to business partners it says benefit from its own dominance. In the past few years, the company settled for $500 million with the Department of Justice for assisting in the illegal sale of prescription drugs online, and several state Attorneys General have voiced concern over Google’s revenue from ads placed with YouTube videos that depict or promote illegal and other activities harmful to consumers and even children.”
“Trust, but verify is an old maxim that applies to Google’s business too,” it added. “The time may be near for another investigation into Google’s business practices. The outcome could very well be potential criminal and civil charges against the company, especially if top executives were aware of the practice, as they were in the illegal pharmaceutical ad sales.”
Last week, a class action suit was launched against the company, but interestingly enough doesn't rely on the leak that brought this whole thing to alleged light. The suit was filed by consumer rights law firm Hagens Berman, which had recently filed another suit against the company related to phone pricing. It claims that Google “unlawfully denies payments to thousands of website owners and operators who place ads on their sites sold through Google AdWords.”
The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, and alleges that the company “abruptly cancels website owners’ AdSense accounts often without explanation shortly before payments are due, and refuses to pay for the ads that ran prior to the cancelation.”
“This wrongful practice has sparked numerous bitter complaints from website owners across the Web, with some reporting losses reaching thousands of dollars a pop,” said Steve Berman, one of Hagens Berman’s founding partners. “What we believe to be true from our research is that Google’s practice is likely hurting thousands of website owners and operators who feel they have no way to fight [a] giant company like Google.”
After the initial leak came out on Pastebin, there were indeed numerous individuals commenting around the web that it sounded suspiciously like what had happened to them, sometimes matching time periods mentioned in the story. You can read some of them in the comments section of our own article about the document. Whether or not any of these claims have merit will apparently be up to the court to decide.
The suit claims that contracts and terms of service Google requires publishers to sign are “unconscionably one-sided, giving Google free reign to embark on what the suit claims are actions devoid of good faith or fair dealing.”
“We have heard from Web publishers who tell us the same thing: Google cuts them off right before a payment is due, and stonewalls them when they object,” said Berman. “Google’s company motto is ‘Don’t be evil.’ Knowing what we know, I think they have a lot of work to do to be true to that goal.”
Free Range Content, which operates Repost.us, is the named plaintiff. It claims to have noticed a spike in AdSense earnings in February, and then at the end of the month, Google allegedly issued a report stating that its estimated earnings for the covered period were over $40,000, which it admits seemed “far too high”. Then, in early March, it says, two days before a scheduled call with an AdSense representative, Free Range Content was informed that Google had disabled its AdSense account.
The suit is seeking damages for All U.S. AdSense publishers whose account was disabled or terminated, and whose last AdSense program payment was withheld permanently by Google.
But the plot thickens. As some have pointed out, Berman has represented Microsoft in the past, and wonder if the company is behind this whole thing. Microsoft, keep in mind, is a major part of the FairSearch Coalition.
Perhaps the most interesting part about this whole thing is that the class action suit supposedly does not depend on anything from the leaker, yet the leaker claims to have plenty of evidence against Google, which they said they would release in the event of a suit.
After the leaker's initial post, they wrote a second one countering Google's denial and issues pointed out in the press making it look illegitimate.
After the first post, for example, Google said color coding and "extreme quality control" programs described in the leak don't exist. Google's Matt Cutts, who isn't part of the AdSense team, talked about the leak on Hacker News, citing "wrong terminology," "untrue policies," and "the lack of specific names of people".
TechCrunch called the leak "fishy" because the leaker "didn't use language consistent with Google's internal lexicon," and that the leak "purported that 'invalid clicks' were used by AdSense publishers’ competitors to get their accounts cancelled for fraud, but Google has sophisticated algorithms to detect this kind of attack."
"Functionally, Google is believed to refund advertisers if it doesn’t end up paying their money out to a publisher, so it couldn’t earn money by the supposed scam laid out in the class action suit," wrote TechCrunch's Josh Constine. "And killing off publishers with high lifetime values to Google just so it could get a one-month boost in its revenue is an unsustainable and thereby unwise strategy."
In the second post, the leaker wrote this in response to "certain misconceptions and confusions":
Firstly, many have asked why I did not approach the leak in a more official capacity and bring my information to the attention of law enforcement. I want to make myself perfectly clear, my employment documents (such as the NDA’s and non-competes) have very strict wording when it comes to releasing internal information in regards to processes and privy information. Google is not just some little company with little means of repercussion. They have gone after other internal leakers and were successful in damaging and ruining their lives on multiple levels. I do not want to be the next one.
I honestly believe very little would have been done if I had brought the information solely to law enforcement, even on the federal level. Google would have simply lawyered up and made it go away (which they have done before). I felt it was better to release the information to the public and let the publishers who suffered the thefts bring forth a civil case against Google. I think a civil action against Google will carry more weight to it, and have a much stronger outcome to the public than a federal case would. The second reason would be that my identity would be front and center if I had approached law enforcement, and if Google were to have squash it immediately I would not have been able to anonymously release the information to the public as a backup plan. The third reason is fear. I do not want to be in the direct identifiable crosshairs of Google’s legal department. I have taken very extreme measures to cover my tracks and identity. I know what they can do, and I know which services and servers do what. I have made sure everything leads to dead ends and that tracking will be virtually impossible. I wasn’t hired by Google for my body. I know, right now, there is a team inside Google working very hard to track me down. They will scour every service and product they have access to in an attempt to find me. But they might as well quit right now, I am an insider and know the inner workings. I know the how’s, the why’s, and who’s. It will be quite futile on their part, but I will still exercise extreme caution.
In regards to my wording of the leaked information. I had planned and carefully thought out every word and every way I had said it. Everything was planned. The timing. The wording. Everything. It is not by accident, nor are there any accidental omissions. Of course I was not going to use terms only employees and former employees would know to explain everything. That would be simply foolish. I kept it informative and only mentioned a few select terms so that Google themselves would know I was who I said I was, because only an employee would have known. So everyone must know that I wrote it for the public, not for Google employees.
Lastly, and more importantly, there has been lots of talk about my information not stating any names and that I did not provide any hard proof. Many individuals have brushed off my information as a falsehood solely due to that and claim that I have nothing substantial. I want you to go a reread my previous information release. Where did I exactly say I did not have proof or hard evidence?
As to that point about evidence, the leaker claims to have documents, files, lists, and names.
"I have all of it. Like I said from the beginning, I have carefully waited and carefully planned everything out," the leaker wrote. "I do everything with reason and purpose. I have to be exceptionally careful in every way. So you ask why haven’t I released it? The answer, if I release everything I have now, it will give Google too many possible avenues to discover my identity. Also doing thing such as publicly naming people and giving Google a pre-emptive look at what I have will only make them prepare for the class action lawsuit that will hit them. They won’t be caught off guard and they will have time to come up with excuses and explanations in attempts to rid themselves of this issue. I do not want that to happen. I want the people to win. I want those who had money they earned, that was stolen from them, to get the right to fight for it on equal grounding. That is why I have chosen to only release it to the legal representatives of the class action lawsuit against Google in regards to AdSense. If those representative decide to release it, then it is up to them, but right now as it stands, I will not. I will carefully monitor the situation and wait to see how it forms and pick the right timing for the release of the evidence to the legal representatives. If several months go by and no class action lawsuit manifests, then I will have to selectively release a few key pieces of evidence to the public at large."
But a suit has indeed been filed. We'll see if the "evidence" surfaces. According to the leaker it's "extensive and quite detailed".
AdSense is said to account for roughly a third of Google’s revenue.
There are a lot of questions about these allegations and the lawsuit. Did this actually happen? If so, is it still happening (the leaker suggested that it might be)? If the allegations are bogus, as many believe them to be, do they just come from a disgruntled publisher (one of apparently many) with a lot of time on his/her hands? Is Microsoft and/or FairSearch somehow involved? Will we ever learn the truth? Discuss.
Image via Google AdSense (YouTube)