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Politics

Google revises COVID-19 ad ban after backlash

Democrats slammed Google for preventing them from criticizing President Trump's response to the crisis. The company said it will announce new policies about political ads in the coming days.

Moody Google Logo

Google changed its policy banning most non-governmental advertising related to COVID-19.

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Google on Thursday announced that it will soon allow political advertisers to begin running ads about coronavirus, walking back a stringent ban after facing pressure from Democrats who told Protocol it unfairly censored their speech about a pivotal election year issue.

The tech giant in a memo to advertisers on Thursday said it will allow some advertisements this week from "government entities, hospitals, medical providers and NGOs" who want to advertise about COVID-19, with guidance expected in the next few days for political advertisers specifically.

"As the COVID-19 situation evolves, we've been adjusting our enforcement to ensure that we are protecting users while prioritizing critical information," a Google spokesperson said in a statement to Protocol. "We are looking at ways to support limited COVID-19-related ads from hospitals, medical providers, government entities and NGOs."

"We also realize that COVID-19 is becoming an important part of everyday conversation, including a relevant topic in political discourse and for many advertisers in different sectors, and we're planning to allow more advertisers to run ads related to COVID-19 as soon as we're able to do so safely," the spokesperson added.

Patrick Stevenson, the chief mobilization officer of the Democratic National Committee, in a message to Protocol said, "It's obviously the right move — I don't know how they thought that was a tenable position," but he expressed frustration that the company did not lay out a more specific timeline for political advertisers.

The sweeping ban was criticized by Democratic strategists, who said it limited candidates and left-leaning nonprofits from speaking out about the Trump administration's response to the coronavirus outbreak, as Protocol reported on Thursday.

"I'm glad that Google is listening to their Democratic clients and the public at large and changing their policies to provide a more level playing field," said Mark Jablonowski, the chief technology officer and managing partner of DSPolitical, a digital ad firm that works with Democratic campaigns and progressive causes.

"We look forward to hearing more details and understanding the timeline for the rollout of these policy changes," he said.

Staffers of several Democratic nonprofits and digital ad firms raised concerns directly with Google this week after they were prevented from using Google's ad tools to spread messages related to coronavirus.

Since the beginning of February, the company had only allowed ads from government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and trusted health bodies like the World Health Organization.

Google told Protocol on Wednesday that it was evaluating that policy on an ongoing basis.

The outcry to the ban was more muted among Republican strategists and campaigns, although it applied equally to Republicans and the Trump campaign as well. There has so far been a hesitancy among some operatives to engage in paid content around coronavirus at all because it is a sensitive and fast-moving situation that has created unprecedented hardships for millions of Americans.

"I think as a matter of strategy you shouldn't be using terms like 'coronavirus' and 'COVID-19' to market to voters right now," Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist, said Thursday.

The struggle between campaigns and Google over the coronavirus-related political ads is the latest in an ongoing controversy over how political ads are handled by big tech companies.

Jablonowski said he is "hopeful that maybe they will examine some of the other policies that have adversely impacted Democratic advertisers on the Google platforms over the past year." And Wilson, the Republican strategist, echoed his sentiments, calling the targeting limitations "problematic."

This post has been update throughout. The headline has been changed to reflect that the ad ban has not been completely reversed.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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