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Should Google censor political ads?

Should Google censor political ads?

by Karl D. Stephan | June 08, 2018

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On May 25, citizens of Ireland voted in a referendum and thereby repealed the eighth amendment to the Irish Constitution, which has banned most types of abortions in Ireland for more than thirty years.  Ireland is a democratic country, and if their constitution allows such amendments by direct vote, then no one should have a problem with the way the change was made.  But most people would also agree that electorates should be informed by any reasonable means possible ahead of a vote, including advertisements paid for by interested parties who exercise their free-speech rights to let their opinions be known. 

In a move that is shocking both in its drastic character and in the hypocrisy with which it was presented, on May 9 with two weeks remaining before the vote, Google abruptly banned all ads dealing with the referendum through its channels, regardless of whether the ads were paid for by domestic or foreign sources.  The day before, Facebook had banned all such ads whose sponsors were outside of Ireland, although there is no current Irish legislation regarding online advertising.  Google's move was breathtaking in its scope and timing, coming at a time when the support for the yes vote in favor of repeal was looking somewhat shaky. 

As an editorial in the conservative U. S. magazine National Review pointed out, the mainstream Irish media were in favor of repeal.  Opponents of the repeal largely resorted to online advertising as being both cheaper and more effective among young people, whose vote was especially critical in this referendum.  Shutting down the online ads left the field open for conventional media, and thus blatantly tipped the scales in favor of the yes vote.  While Google explained its move as intended to "protect the integrity" of the campaign, one person's protection is another person's interference. 

As the lack of any Irish laws pertaining to online political ads testifies, online advertising has gotten way ahead of the legal and political system's ability to keep up with it.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, although issues of fairness are always present when the question of paid political ads comes up. 

The ways of dealing with political advertising lie along a spectrum.  On one end is the no-holds-barred libertarian extreme of no restrictions whatsoever.  Under this type of regime, anyone with enough money to afford advertising can spend it to say anything they want about any political issue, without revealing who they are or where they live.  With regard to online ads, if Ireland has no laws concerning them, then the libertarian end of the spectrum prevails, and neither Google nor Facebook was under any legal obligation to block any advertising regarding the referendum.

On the other extreme is the situation in which all media access is closely regulated and encumbered by restrictions as to amount of spending, when and where money can be spent, and what can be said.  I suppose the ultimate extreme of this pole is state-controlled media which monopolize the political discussion and ban all private access, regardless of ability to pay.  For technological reasons, it is hard for even super-totalitarian states such as North Korea to achieve 100% control of all media these days, but some nations come close.  Most people would agree that a state which flatly prohibits private political advertising is not likely to achieve much in the way of meaningful democracy.

But the pure-libertarian model has flaws too.  If most of the wealthy people all favor one political party or opinion, the other side is unlikely to get a fair hearing unless they are clever and exploit newer and cheaper ways to gain access to the public ear, as the pro-life groups in Ireland appear to have done. 

What is new to this traditional spectrum is the existence of institutions such as Google and Facebook which strive mightily to appear as neutral common carriers—think the old Bell System—but in fact have their own political axes to grind, and very powerful means to carry out moves that have huge political implications.  I wonder what would have happened if the situation had been reversed—if the no-vote people had been in control of the mainstream media and the yes-vote people had been forced to resort to online ads.  Would Google have shut down all online advertising two weeks before the vote in that case?  I somehow doubt it.

Like it or not, Google, Facebook, and their ilk are now publishers whose economic scale, power, and influence in some cases far exceed the old newspaper publishing empires of Hearst and Gannett and Murdoch.  But the old publishers knew they were publishers, and had some vague sense of social responsibility that went along with their access to the public's attention.  In the days before the "Victorian internet" (telegraphy) gave rise to the Associated Press, publishers were typically identified with particular political persuasions.  Everybody knew which was the Republican paper and which was the Democratic paper, and bought newspapers (and political ads) accordingly.  Even today, although the older news media make some effort to keep a wall of separation between the opinionated editorial operations and the supposedly neutral advertising and finance operations, many newspapers and TV networks take certain political positions and make no secret of it. 

But Google has outgrown its fig leaf of neutrality when it says it is "protecting the integrity" of elections by arbitrary and draconian bans on free speech, which is exactly what it did on May 9 in Ireland.  The fig leaf is now too small to hide some naughty bits, and it's clear to everybody who's paying the least attention that what Google did damaged the cause of one side in the referendum. 

It is of course possible that the repeal would have happened even if Google had not banned all ads when it did.  We will never know.  But Google now bears some measure of responsibility for the consequences of that vote, and the millions of future lives that will now never see the light of day because their protection in law is gone will not learn to read, will not learn to use a computer or a smart phone—and will never experience Google.  But hey, there are plenty of other people in the world, and maybe Google will never miss the ones that will now be missing from Ireland.

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.

Sources:  The June 11, 2018 issue of National Review carried a summary of this matter on p. 7.  I also referred to online reports of Google and Facebook actions regarding the referendum carried by Forbes, the Irish Times, ABC News, and the Irish Journal.

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