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.

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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.

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