Concordia Publishing House, Google AdWords, and “The Rest of the Story”

In a prior article I posted a notice about CPH being banned from Google Adwords “retargeting” platform. CPH has since posted a news release on the issue and concluded with the following statement:

footer-logoCPH President and CEO Dr. Bruce G. Kintz stated, “Clearly, CPH does not agree with Google’s decision in this matter. If we are willing to remove references to our faith in our ads or website, then we will be allowed to use remarketing ads with Google. Simply stated, we are not willing to sacrifice our beliefs to comply with Google’s requirements. It’s no secret that society is becoming increasingly hostile to the Christian faith. This increasing hostility makes our mission of proclaiming that faith through the books, Bibles, and curriculum that we produce all the more important. We will continue to proclaim the faith because we know without a doubt that the Word of the Lord endures forever.”

It continues to be CPH’s mission to share God’s Word with all Christians who are seeking faithful resources to support their faith. CPH will not be deterred by Google’s actions in this instance but will seek all available avenues to connect people to Christ.

As it turns out, there’s a vertrz65ry good and legitimate reason Google did this –  and it has nothing to do with discriminating against Christians or suppressing their voice in the ad market.

To elaborate – retargeting ads work by taking information from a site you visited and showing you ads for those items on other websites. For example I do a lot of research on the internet and I’ve had it happen multiple times where I’d get ads for something I looked at days ago on websites that had nothing to do with the product or service in question.

That was a retargeting ad.

The impact of this kind of behavior can range from mildly annoying to creepy to outright dangerous. If you persistently see ads for something you were curious about but had no intention of buying, it’s annoying. But if ads disclosed highly sensitive information about you to other people, that can put you at risk for financial harm, physical harm, and in some circumstances even at risk for your life.

Levi Nunnink is an LCMS layman that works in the privacy area and he wrote an article  on the subject over on medium.com. In that article Levi detailed the reason for the ban and included a number of plausible scenarios that could happen if retargeting ads failed to exclude sensitive content:

  1. Say I’m a wife in an abusive marriage and I Google a divorce attorney and click on a website. What if my abusive, easily-angered husband gets home, opens the computer and finds a ton of retargeting ads for divorce services and he attacks me?
  2. Say I’m a fundamentalist baptist teenager and I’m considering converting to Roman Catholicism and I click on vatican.va. What if my parents who hate Roman Catholics see all these “Convert to Rome in 3 easy steps” ads and they kick me out of the house?
  3. Say I’m someone who is struggling with same-sex-attraction and I’m looking for resources on how to deal with this and I click on a bunch of websites. Now every time I open my computer or phone I get a big ad saying “Gay? Find your local LGBT community!”
  4. Say I’m someone who works for the typical progressive tech company and I *gulp* secretly voted for Donald Trump. I give a presentation at our company “all-hands meeting” and a big ad pops up on my screen saying, “Thank you for making America Great Again. Click here for ‘Support President Trump’ shirts!” And then nobody will sit with me at the hummus bar?

The danger the unwanted disclosure of personal information pertaining to matters of faith can also be found in the legal sphere in the case of “JOHN DOE (a pseudonym for the Plaintiff), Plaintiff/Appellant, v. THE FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH U.S.A. OF TULSA, OKLAHOMA, and JAMES D. MILLER”.

The arguments in the case were as follows:

…. Appellant was baptized at his own request at The First Presbyterian Church U.S.A. of Tulsa, Oklahoma (FPC) by James D. Miller (Miller). Appellant alleges he made Appellees aware of the need for confidentiality throughout the conversion process, as he was planning to return to Syria shortly thereafter. Appellant’s baptism took place on December 30, 2012, during a service that was open to members and guests of the church, but was not televised. It is undisputed that Appellant was not and never became a member of FPC, before or after his baptism.

4 Appellant alleges he travelled to Syria almost immediately after his baptism, arriving in Damascus on January 2, 2013. Appellant asserts he was confronted by radical Muslims in Damascus in mid-January, 2013, who had heard of his conversion on the internet. Appellant alleges he was kidnapped, and informed by his kidnappers they were going to carry out his death sentence as a result of his conversion from Islam.

5 Appellant alleges he was tortured for several days before he was able to escape captivity, killing his paternal uncle in the process. As a result, he asserts he is now wanted for murder in Syria. Appellant alleges he was able to clandestinely make it back to the United States, where he faces continuous death threats. Appellant asserts he suffered numerous physical injuries and psychological damage, all proximately caused by Appellees’ publication of his baptism, in contravention of promises they supposedly made to him that it would be kept confidential.

Now suppose a someone was thinking about converting to Christianity and that person checked out the CPH website looking for material of some kind to support them. If that person person left the website, then later on is using it normally only to have a CPH ad appear on the web browser while others of their current faith were looking – what do you think would happen next? And how would that reflect on CPH?

I would argue that CPH’s “Privacy Policy” page actually agrees with this policy:

Concordia Publishing House respects and wants to protect the privacy of our users.

Since retargeting ads can disclose a person’s browsing activity to third parties without their permission, would that not be a violation of their privacy?

Google banning retargeting ads for subject content of a highly personal and sensitive nature like faith and religion is a good thing. CPH can still buy non-retargeting ads and participate in the marketplace in other ways just like anyone else. It just can’t do it in a way that might put others at risk.

As Paul Harvey used to say “And now you know the rest of the story.”

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