Source Code: Your daily look at what matters in tech.

source-codesource codeauthorEmily BirnbaumNoneWant your finger on the pulse of everything that's happening in tech? Sign up to get David Pierce's daily newsletter.64fd3cbe9f
×

Get access to Protocol

Your information will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy

I’m already a subscriber
Politics

Democrats say Google’s COVID-19 ad ban is a gift to Donald Trump

"To not allow political candidates to mention or discuss COVID-19 is something that has the potential to dramatically bolster Trump's and Republicans' chances of reelection."

President Trump at a coronavirus press conference

The struggle between Democratic campaigns and Google over political ads is the latest in an ongoing controversy over how big tech companies handle political advertising on their platforms.

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Update April 2, 2020: Two days after the publication of this story, Google revised its ad policies and said it would issue new guidance on political advertising about COVID-19.

As coronavirus spread around the world in February, Google decided to ban most nongovernmental advertising about the outbreak in an effort to defeat misinformation, fraud and scams. But Democrats say the Google ban does something else: It allows the Trump administration to run ads promoting its response to the crisis while denying Democrats the chance to run ads criticizing it.

Prominent Democratic PACs in recent days have funneled millions of dollars into television ads accusing Trump of mishandling the coronavirus crisis. But staffers of several Democratic nonprofits and digital ad firms realized this week that they would not be able to use Google's dominant ad tools to spread true information about President Trump's handling of the outbreak on YouTube and other Google platforms. The company only allows PSA-style ads from government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and trusted health bodies like the World Health Organization. Multiple Democratic and progressive strategists were rebuked when they tried to place Google ads criticizing the Trump administration's response to coronavirus, officials within the firms told Protocol.

"We're in the middle of the defining event of this election and potentially a generation," said Mark Jablonowski, the chief technology officer and managing partner of DSPolitical, a top digital ad firm that works with Democratic campaigns and progressive causes.

"To not allow political candidates to mention or discuss COVID-19 is something that has the potential to dramatically bolster Trump's and Republicans' chances of reelection," he said.

Jablonowski said his firm had to take Google off the table on Monday as it worked to place a six-figure ad campaign around the latest economic stimulus package. The advertisement slammed Congress for not going far enough to protect health care workers, Jablonowski said, declining to name the client.

"Normally, we'd love to be able to use YouTube as part of an ad buy like this," he said.

One Democratic strategist said his digital firm had already gone live in recent days with several ad campaigns related to coronavirus on Facebook, which allows most political ads about the disease. "As we were getting ready to start broadening [the ad campaign] into Google, we reached out to Google to clarify what their rules were going to be," said the strategist, who requested anonymity in order to maintain his relationship with Google. A Google ad representative told them they would not be able to place the ads.

Josh Koster, a managing partner at D.C.-based digital advertising firm Chong & Koster, acknowledged the need for some restrictions but would not abide the total ban on political ads.

"I totally understand if they want to ban for-profit entities from talking about coronavirus," he said. "They're trying to avoid people price-gouging face masks and selling fake cures, and generally exploiting the crisis for profit. But that's an entirely separate use-case from nonprofit organizations trying to spread accurate information about the situation and holding elected officials accountable for the life-and-death decisions they are currently making."

The Trump campaign and Republicans across the country also are not allowed to run advertisements right now. But the democratic strategists argue that the CDC and White House's messaging, which are permitted by Google, fall under Trump's purview.

"For Google to basically say that the Trump administration is the only entity that is allowed to talk about the most important issue in politics really puts their thumb on the scale of the incumbent president and against anyone who is really looking to challenge him," said Eli Kaplan, a founding partner of Rising Tide Interactive, a digital marketing firm for Democratic political organizations and progressive nonprofits.

A Google spokesperson told Protocol that the company proactively instituted the policy at the beginning of February when it noticed a flurry of advertisers throwing their messages onto coronavirus-related terms in order to drive traffic. While Google announced the ban in general terms earlier this month, its effect on political messaging is only now being recognized.

"We are currently blocking ads related to coronavirus under our sensitive events policy, with exception of government PSAs on important health information," a Google spokesperson told Protocol in a statement. "This policy applies to all advertisers equally, including all political advertisers."

The struggle between Democratic campaigns and Google over political ads is the latest in an ongoing controversy over how big tech companies handle political advertising on their platforms. Google last year significantly pared down the ability for advertisers to microtarget their political messaging. The move drew bipartisan pushback from every major Democratic campaign arm, top digital firms, as well as Republican campaigns, including Trump's.

"Google has eliminated a lot of the targeting methodologies that really are instrumental in how Democratic campaigns operate," Jablonowski said.

Strategists are still allowed to run political ads about COVID-19 on Facebook, which has long attracted scrutiny over its permissive policies around paid content from politicians and campaigns.

A Facebook spokesperson said the company has not implemented a policy that prevents political advertising that references the virus, but it will take down coronavirus-related content from any user — even politicians — that could cause harm in the real world.

Google expressed openness to one day changing the policy, saying it is continually evaluating its rules in a dynamic situation and could reevaluate in a few months.

Until then, the strategists say they are completely overhauling their messaging as they strive to push back on President Trump and his administration during a crisis that has forced millions of Americans into their homes, sent the economy spiraling, and infected hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. months before the presidential election.

"I've had several different clients that have totally had to rethink the way that their political strategy is working right now," said another Democratic strategist, who also requested anonymity. "They've had to toss out the old playbook and come up with a whole bunch of different issues."

On Tuesday, Protocol identified one Democratic big spender who was apparently allowed to run advertisements about coronavirus over the course of several days at the beginning of March: former presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg. An expensive ad spot titled "Pandemic," which ran before Bloomberg dropped out of the race at the beginning of March, warned that the U.S. was unprepared for coronavirus — and touted Bloomberg as the leader who could take it on.

When contacted about the ads on Tuesday, Google said they were in violation of the policy and have since been removed. The company says it has taken down over 50 million ads in the past few weeks for violating its coronavirus-specific sensitive events policy.


Get in touch with us: Share information securely with Protocol via encrypted Signal or WhatsApp message, at 415-214-4715 or through our anonymous SecureDrop.


Meanwhile, legions of Democratic and Republicans lawmakers have increasingly taken to Facebook in recent weeks to run advertisements about coronavirus and how it's affecting their districts. Most of the advertisements, from lawmakers including Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., and Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., promote links to the CDC or local health bodies to disseminate resources about COVID-19.

"Google should remove content that misleads the public as it relates to health issues surrounding COVID-19," said Kaplan. "But shutting down all paid political advertising on the subject, including ad content that is 100% truthful, is completely irresponsible."

Protocol | Workplace

In Silicon Valley, it’s February 2020 all over again

"We'll reopen when it's right, but right now the world is changing too much."

Tech companies are handling the delta variant in differing ways.

Photo: alvarez/Getty Images

It's still 2021, right? Because frankly, it's starting to feel like March 2020 all over again.

Google, Apple, Uber and Lyft have now all told employees they won't have to come back to the office before October as COVID-19 case counts continue to tick back up. Facebook, Google and Uber are now requiring workers to get vaccinated before coming to the office, and Twitter — also requiring vaccines — went so far as to shut down its reopened offices on Wednesday, and put future office reopenings on hold.

Keep Reading Show less
Allison Levitsky
Allison Levitsky is a reporter at Protocol covering workplace issues in tech. She previously covered big tech companies and the tech workforce for the Silicon Valley Business Journal. Allison grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from UC Berkeley.

After a year and a half of living and working through a pandemic, it's no surprise that employees are sending out stress signals at record rates. According to a 2021 study by Indeed, 52% of employees today say they feel burnt out. Over half of employees report working longer hours, and a quarter say they're unable to unplug from work.

The continued swell of reported burnout is a concerning trend for employers everywhere. Not only does it harm mental health and well-being, but it can also impact absenteeism, employee retention and — between the drain on morale and high turnover — your company culture.

Crisis management is one thing, but how do you permanently lower the temperature so your teams can recover sustainably? Companies around the world are now taking larger steps to curb burnout, with industry leaders like LinkedIn, Hootsuite and Bumble shutting down their offices for a full week to allow all employees extra time off. The CEO of Okta, worried about burnout, asked all employees to email him their vacation plans in 2021.

Keep Reading Show less
Stella Garber
Stella Garber is Trello's Head of Marketing. Stella has led Marketing at Trello for the last seven years from early stage startup all the way through its acquisition by Atlassian in 2017 and beyond. Stella was an early champion of remote work, having led remote teams for the last decade plus.
Protocol | China

Livestreaming ecommerce next battleground for China’s nationalists

Vendors for Nike and even Chinese brands were harassed for not donating enough to Henan.

Nationalists were trolling in the comment sections of livestream sessions selling products by Li-Ning, Adidas and other brands.

Collage: Weibo, Bilibili

The No. 1 rule of sales: Don't praise your competitor's product. Rule No. 2: When you are put to a loyalty test by nationalist trolls, forget the first rule.

While China continues to respond to the catastrophic flooding that has killed 99 and displaced 1.4 million people in the central province of Henan, a large group of trolls was busy doing something else: harassing ordinary sportswear sellers on China's livestream ecommerce platforms. Why? Because they determined that the brands being sold had donated too little, or too late, to the people impacted by floods.

Keep Reading Show less
Zeyi Yang
Zeyi Yang is a reporter with Protocol | China. Previously, he worked as a reporting fellow for the digital magazine Rest of World, covering the intersection of technology and culture in China and neighboring countries. He has also contributed to the South China Morning Post, Nikkei Asia, Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. In his spare time, Zeyi co-founded a Mandarin podcast that tells LGBTQ stories in China. He has been playing Pokemon for 14 years and has a weird favorite pick.
Power

The video game industry is bracing for its Netflix and Spotify moment

Subscription gaming promises to upend gaming. The jury's out on whether that's a good thing.

It's not clear what might fall through the cracks if most of the biggest game studios transition away from selling individual games and instead embrace a mix of free-to-play and subscription bundling.

Image: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Subscription services are coming for the game industry, and the shift could shake up the largest and most lucrative entertainment sector in the world. These services started as small, closed offerings typically available on only a handful of hardware platforms. Now, they're expanding to mobile phones and smart TVs, and promising to radically change the economics of how games are funded, developed and distributed.

Of the biggest companies in gaming today, Amazon, Apple, Electronic Arts, Google, Microsoft, Nintendo, Nvidia, Sony and Ubisoft all operate some form of game subscription. Far and away the most ambitious of them is Microsoft's Xbox Game Pass, featuring more than 100 games for $9.99 a month and including even brand-new titles the day they release. As of January, Game Pass had more than 18 million subscribers, and Microsoft's aggressive investment in a subscription future has become a catalyst for an industrywide reckoning on the likelihood and viability of such a model becoming standard.

Keep Reading Show less
Nick Statt
Nick Statt is Protocol's video game reporter. Prior to joining Protocol, he was news editor at The Verge covering the gaming industry, mobile apps and antitrust out of San Francisco, in addition to managing coverage of Silicon Valley tech giants and startups. He now resides in Rochester, New York, home of the garbage plate and, completely coincidentally, the World Video Game Hall of Fame. He can be reached at nstatt@protocol.com.
Protocol | Policy

Lina Khan wants to hear from you

The new FTC chair is trying to get herself, and the sometimes timid tech-regulating agency she oversees, up to speed while she still can.

Lina Khan is trying to push the FTC to corral tech companies

Photo: Graeme Jennings/AFP via Getty Images

"When you're in D.C., it's very easy to lose connection with the very real issues that people are facing," said Lina Khan, the FTC's new chair.

Khan made her debut as chair before the press on Wednesday, showing up to a media event carrying an old maroon book from the agency's library and calling herself a "huge nerd" on FTC history. She launched into explaining how much she enjoys the open commission meetings she's pioneered since taking over in June. That's especially true of the marathon public comment sessions that have wrapped up each of the two meetings so far.

Keep Reading Show less
Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

Latest Stories