Google bitcoin ban: New policy on cryptocurrency is ‘heavy-handed’ and ‘unethical’, say experts

Experts suspect the ban plays into Google’s own cryptocurrency ambitions

Anthony Cuthbertson
Monday 04 June 2018 15:00 BST
What is Bitcoin and why is its price so high?

Google’s decision to ban all bitcoin and cryptocurrency adverts on its platforms is ill-thought-out and potentially even unethical, according to industry experts.

The new policy, which comes into effect this month, follows similar bans from Facebook and Twitter.

Google announced the ban in a blogpost in March, stating: “Ads for the following will no longer be allowed to serve … Cryptocurrencies and related content (including but not limited to initial coin offerings, cryptocurrency exchanges, cryptocurrency wallets, and cryptocurrency trading advice.”

Both Google and Facebook have recently revealed their interest in cryptocurrencies and their underlying blockchain technology, leading to speculation that the advert ban is not solely motivated by a desire to confront criminality.

“I understand that Facebook and Google are under a lot of pressure to regulate what their users are reading, but they are still advertising gambling websites and other unethical practices,” Phillip Nunn, CEO of Manchester-based investment firm Blackmore Group, told The Independent.

“I suspect the ban has been implemented to fit in with potential plans to introduce their own cryptocurrency to the market in the near future and therefore removing other crypto adverts allows them to do it on their own terms.”

In May, Google reportedly approached the founder of ethereum – the world’s second most valuable cryptocurrency in terms of market capitalisation – in the hope of potentially securing his services.

A Google spokesperson declined to comment on either the ban or speculation surrounding its cryptocurrency and blockchain ambitions, however a spokesperson told Business Insider in March that it was looking into the technology.

“Like many new technologies, we have individuals in various teams exploring potential use of blockchain, but it’s too early for us to speculate about any possible uses or plans,” the spokesperson said.

Facebook also hinted at its blockchain ambitions in May, as it announced the biggest management reshuffle in its history.

Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg has previously expressed interest in cryptocurrency and the blockchain technology that bitcoin popularised (AFP/Getty)

David Marcus, the former head of Facebook Messenger, announced that he will lead an exploratory blockchain group that will report directly to the company’s CTO, Mike Schroepfer.

Facebook’s attempts to block adverts promoting anything related to cryptocurrencies faced difficulties when its new policy was introduced in January, with marketers using simple tricks to circumvent it.

For example, words like “cryptocurrency” were abbreviated to “c-currency” and the letter “o” in the word “bitcoin” was switched to a zero.

The blanket ban by Google is self-imposed and follows a pattern of large tech platforms pre-empting regulatory bodies by policing their own platforms.

As cryptocurrencies have become more popular, scammers are increasingly using Facebook and Google to promote shady cryptocurrencies and exchanges and defraud customers.

Recent research into initial coin offerings (ICO) – the process of selling units of a cryptocurrency ahead of its launch – found that as many as 80 per cent of ICOs were fraudulent.

Clamping down specifically on these types of adverts is seen as a positive thing, as the proliferation of these adverts hurts the perception of the space in general. However, the nature of the ban is seen as unfairly targeting this emerging industry.

Adverts for bitcoin, litecoin, ripple, ethereum and other cryptocurrencies will be banned on Google platforms from this month (Getty)

“Unfortunately, the fact that this ban is a blanket ban will mean that legitimate cryptocurrency businesses which provide valuable services to users will be unfairly caught in the crossfire,” Ed Cooper, head of mobile at digital banking startup Revolut, told The Independent.

“A more targeted approach would definitely be preferable: it would seem heavy handed for example to put a blanket ban on all ads for job postings, anti-virus software or charities just because ads for these products and service are also sometimes used as an entry point by scammers to target consumers.”

Gareth Malna, a fintech solicitor at the UK law firm Burges Salmon, goes as far as to suggest that Google’s ban contradicts the very purpose of the world’s largest search engine.

“The decision by Google to act as a quasi-regulator in this context is a potentially troubling development given its vast commercial power,” Mr Malna said.

“​For Google to step in and block that market may sound like consumer protection, but is potentially overstepping its perceived role as gatekeeper to information.”

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