A reader noticed something she thought was new in Google’s terms and conditions contracts for its AdSense program, which places ads on sites big and small:

5. Prohibited Uses. You shall not, and shall not authorize or encourage any third party to:

(xi) engage in any action or practice that reflects poorly on Google or otherwise disparages or devalues Google’s reputation or goodwill.

It is not new. A version of this clause has been part of the AdSense terms for several years. I wrote to Google’s representative asking why Google is holding such a big club over bloggers and other site owners. There are no shortage of people who write opinions or information that, at least to some readers, reflect “poorly on Google or otherwise disparages or devalues Google’s reputation or goodwill.”

Brandon McCormick, a Google spokesman, wrote me back saying this:

The clause is meant for cases where a website that is doing something unethical attempts to use AdSense to give the impression that it and its actions are somehow supported by, sponsored by or affiliated with Google. It is not our policy - and we have not terminated a publisher because they criticized Google or a Google product.

I’m glad Google will cut off the flow of money to someone who is trying to deceive people by pretending to be Google. But that’s not what the terms actually said. The most generous assumption is that lawyers, as lawyers will, wrote the contract to give themselves the most latitude possible.

Long before Google went public, I remember Sergey Brin, the company’s co-founder, telling me that he was worried that the dotcom crash meant that people couldn’t afford to create good Web sites for Google to search. This thinking eventually led the company to develop AdSense, which sells ads on for sites big and small. This move, indeed helped fuel the subsequent explosion of blogs and other new sites.

AdSense has turned into a great and profitable business. But I do believe that part of the motivation of Google’s leaders, here and in other actions they have taken, is to encourage the exchange of knowledge and ideas.

Freedom of expression can be defined by what happens to the person with the most repugnant expression. Google may well find itself in a fight with someone printing information about the company or one of its executives that it strongly objects to. At that moment, in the middle of some drawn out battle, someone may be tempted to cut off the AdSense money to the offending site. At that moment, it could hold up the legal agreement as justification for that action.

You see creeping lawyerism in other Google actions too. Its privacy policy, these days, gives it the right to use all sorts of information about its users in its advertising system that it currently says loudly that it does not use. That means that Google could change its policies and it would not have a legal obligation to use a change in privacy policy as a way to tell users that it is getting nosier.

Overly broad legal boilerplate is an issue that affects so many places in our world where we deal with big companies that write contracts that govern our interaction. You’d think Google, which aspires to high standards especially on an issue as important as freedom of expression, could write a clearer contract.

UPDATE: A friend at Google called up to ask whether I had checked whether other companies had such provisions. I hadn’t yet, but I did.

Indeed, Yahoo makes advertisers agree that their ads “do not (as determined by us) reflect poorly on or tarnish the reputation or goodwill of a Yahoo! Entity.”

As far as I could find, the Microsoft AdCenter agreement does not contain such a provision. It bans “defamatory, libelous, slanderous content” of all sorts with no specific reference to Microsoft.