technology

Eyes turn to Google as political ads divide Silicon Valley

Pressure is building for Google to pick a side between the positions staked out by Facebook and Twitter's chief executives.

Google New York headquarters

Facebook's tolerance of misleading campaign ads has the company under nearly daily attack in Washington. Google has largely gotten a pass despite seemingly upholding similar policies.

Now, that’s showing signs of changing.

"Google has been very adroit at ducking a lot of attention, whether it's the result of purposeful action or not," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told POLITICO on Thursday. "But it bears equal scrutiny."

Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) told POLITICO they also want to see Google explain itself or rethink its policies.

The search giant has never spelled out whether it allows political candidates to put false messages into paid ads, but in practice, its approach appears similar to Facebook’s permissive policy. For example, both companies are hosting the same campaign ad against Joe Biden that has ignited more than a month of Democratic broadsides on Mark Zuckerberg’s social network.

Political ads represent a fairly minuscule portion of the billions in advertising revenue pouring into tech giants like Facebook and Google, but the debate over how to handle them could have enormous implications for the messages that voters see during the 2020 campaign, including from President Donald Trump’s big-spending reelection campaign. And that has provoked a sharp partisan divide on the policies the big platforms should pursue, with Democrats urging a hard line against fakery while many Republicans warn against censoring online speech.

Google and its video platform YouTube have pulled in $122 million from ads featuring federal candidates since May 2018, while Facebook's haul for political and issues-based advertising over the same period comes to $857 million. (Google’s total revenue last year exceeded $100 billion, while Facebook took in more than $55 billion.)

Political ads "may not be that much money to them, but it's a helluva lot of power for them," said Tristan Harris, a former Google employee and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, an advocacy group started by former Facebook and Google investors and employees.

Facebook affirmed last month that it will not fact-check politicians’ ads, a stance that allows Trump’s campaign to continue making baseless accusations that Biden and his family are involved in corruption in Ukraine. In contrast, the rival social network Twitter said Wednesday that, starting Nov. 22, it will no longer run political or issue ads at all, blocking one avenue for candidates of all types to reach potential voters. Pinterest, LinkedIn, TikTok and Twitch also prohibit political ads.

Google, however, has not publicly laid out any policies on misleading political messaging. A spokesperson did not respond to questions about whether the company fact-checks political ads or rejects those found to contain lies. But the Trump campaign's anti-Biden ad did not violate the company's policies.

The policies that Google has publicly articulated largely deal with transparency and legal compliance. The company says it requires that advertisers in national elections be verified in advance and disclose who paid for the advertisement, and it limits or bans ads for ballot measures in five states, pursuant to local laws.

"Google is just as involved in terms of political campaigning as Facebook is, so they both need to be reined in and they both should be pressured in this election," said Jeff Chester, executive director at the Center for Digital Democracy. "Google is as bad as Facebook in terms of all the data they use and the techniques, but somehow they had a much more effective kind of lobbying effort to stay away from public criticism."

Schatz suggested the company should be able to put a hard ban on misleading ads without pulling out of political advertising altogether. "I just think every platform of consequence has to determine their way forward in terms of whether or not they're going to allow explicit lies on their platform," he said. "It's just not that hard to have a policy that says, we will not allow you to lie explicitly and take money for it."

Others, though, are less convinced that's a tenable position.

"It doesn't hurt for people to wait and see how some of these things play out," said Brad Smith, founder of the Institute for Free Speech and a former GOP chairman of the FEC, who sharply criticized Twitter's political ads ban. "But I think the choice really comes down to allow it all or ban it all. Policing it is something you can never do satisfactorily."

Google may have escaped the same intense scrutiny as Facebook thus far, but it has not been altogether immune to it. In an Oct. 10 letter obtained by POLITICO, Biden for President campaign manager Greg Schultz asked Google to remove Trump's misleading YouTube ads, saying they violate the platform's stated policies against deception and defamation.

"No company should allow itself to be a tool to mislead the public [on] any issue, let alone on one as important as the health of our democracy," Schultz wrote. "It is one thing to allow President Trump the platform to spread falsehoods on his own channel; it is quite another to profit from paid ads echoing the same lies."

Pressure is building, fed by tech critics from across the political spectrum, for Google to pick a side between the positions staked out by Facebook and Twitter's chief executives.

"Mark Zuckerberg is right. Jack Dorsey is wrong," Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) told POLITICO. "We should be defending free speech, not empowering a handful of Silicon Valley billionaires to control all public discussion."

Meanwhile, Nandini Jammi, co-founder of Sleeping Giants, an activist group that pushes corporations to stop advertising on websites such as Breitbart News, said Twitter "has set a precedent that we expect Google's leadership is watching closely. We wouldn't be surprised if they follow suit — we hope they do."

"If history tells us anything, tech leaders tend to be followers," she added. "There's been a total lack of moral leadership from big tech leaders because they're waiting for someone else to make the first move."

Cristiano Lima contributed to this report.