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Google Plays Politics with McCain - and Advertisers

May 5, 2007

If anyone had any lingering doubts about the unique role of Google as a social, cultural and political force in the United States, a Friday appearance by John McCain at its company headquarters should put them to rest. The special forum hosted by CEO Eric Schmidt let GOP White House hopeful McCain bring his views directly to Google employees - and the world. It's just too bad Google doesn't always treat its advertisers the same way.
McCain's visit to Google follows a February appearance by Hillary Clinton and is the second in its series of candidate forums. By all accounts CEO Schmidt, a prominent Democratic contributor, was even-handed and treated McCain and his record of service to America with great respect. On topics such as Iraq and the Pentagon's "Don't Ask. Don't Tell," however, McCain's reception wasn't as warm. All in all, it was another unique perk for the workers of perhaps the world's most exclusive company.
Sadly, Google advertisers and readers don't necessarily enjoy the same perks. That's because Google sometimes bans advertisers whose web site content expresses views akin to a political candidate. Back in 2004, I learned this the hard way.
But first a little background. The Google Adwords program allows web site operators to cost effectively promote their sites on Google search results pages. But Google can bar advertisers, even after their ads have started running, if the company deems their sites or ads violate its content policy. While its editorial guidelines rightly ban sites offering child pornography or advocating violence, Google's standards get much murkier when it comes to supposed "Anti" speech:

Advertisements and associated websites may not promote violence or advocate against a protected group. A protected group is distinguished by their race or ethnic origin, color, national origin, religion, disability, sex, age, veteran status, or sexual orientation/gender identity.
Ad text advocating against any organization or person (public, private, or protected) is not permitted. Stating disagreement with or campaigning against a candidate for public office, a political party or public administration is generally permissible.
This standard applies to everyone who wants to advertise on Google, whether we agree with their viewpoint or not.

While a laudable effort on its face, the Google guidelines can produce unpredictable and unpleasant results for advertisers. In 2004, Perrspectives was dropped by Google for including "unacceptable content" on the site that includes "language that advocates against an individual, group or organization." (The offending phrase cited by Google? The Bush White House was described as "secretive, paranoid and vengeance-filled.") After a back and forth appeals process lasting six weeks, Google relented and reversed its decision. (For a detailed history, see "Google's Gag Order" and "A Google Freedom of Information Act," as well as coverage in The Nation.)
Google, of course, is completely within its rights to accept or reject any advertiser on any grounds. And to its credit, the company has made important revisions to its advertising guidelines since 2004, especially regarding political campaigns and candidates.
But the ambiguities remain. For example, Senator McCain on April 16th authored a letter with a strong defense of the Pentagon's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy restricting gay members of the military. As ThinkProgress noted, McCain used tough language to attack gay servicemembers, over 10,000 of whom have been discharged since 1994:

"I believe polarization of the personnel and breakdown of unit effectiveness is too high a price to pay for well intentioned but misguided efforts to elevate the interests of a minority of homosexual servicemembers above those of their units.
Most importantly, the national security of the United States, not to mention the lives of our men and women in uniform, are put at grave risk by policies detrimental to the good order and and discipline which so distinguish America's Armed Services...I remain opposed to the open expression of homosexuality in the military."

According to Google's own standards, McCain is "advocating against" gay Americans, a "protected group." In theory, his campaign shouldn't be able to advertise (it is). Similarly, Tommy Thompson, who praised money-making as "part of the Jewish tradition" and during Thursday's GOP debate supported a firm's right to fire gay employees, should theoretically be barred. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Of course, none of them - left, right or center - should be banned as Google advertisers. Google should encourage access to the broadest possible range of opinion speech for its readers and advertisers alike. Ideally, the solution would be for Google to move away from its "advocates against" and "protected groups" guidelines and instead adopt a simpler standard. "No violence and no prurient interests" should be sufficient to ban Nazis and terrorists, pornographers and pedophiles.
After all, with a stock price of $470, Google of all companies should believe in the market place of ideas. Especially for one whose corporate slogan is "do no evil."


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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