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.

Policy

Nobody will help Big Tech prevent online terrorism but itself

There’s no will in Congress or the C-suites of social media giants for a new approach, but smaller platforms would have room to step up — if they decided to.

Timothy Kujawski of Buffalo lights candles at a makeshift memorial as people gather at the scene of a mass shooting at Tops Friendly Market at Jefferson Avenue and Riley Street on Sunday, May 15, 2022 in Buffalo, NY. The fatal shooting of 10 people at a grocery store in a historically Black neighborhood of Buffalo by a young white gunman is being investigated as a hate crime and an act of racially motivated violent extremism, according to federal officials.

Photo: Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The shooting in Buffalo, New York, that killed 10 people over the weekend has put the spotlight back on social media companies. Some of the attack was livestreamed, beginning on Amazon-owned Twitch, and the alleged shooter appears to have written about how his racist motivations arose from misinformation on smaller or fringe sites including 4chan.

In response, policymakers are directing their anger at tech platforms, with New York Governor Kathy Hochul calling for the companies to be “more vigilant in monitoring” and for “a legal responsibility to ensure that such hate cannot populate these sites.”

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.

Sponsored Content

Foursquare data story: leveraging location data for site selection

We take a closer look at points of interest and foot traffic patterns to demonstrate how location data can be leveraged to inform better site selecti­on strategies.

Imagine: You’re the leader of a real estate team at a restaurant brand looking to open a new location in Manhattan. You have two options you’re evaluating: one site in SoHo, and another site in the Flatiron neighborhood. Which do you choose?

Keep Reading Show less

We're answering all your questions about the crypto crash.

Photo: Chris Liverani/Unsplash

People started talking about another crypto winter in January, when falling prices had wiped out $1 trillion in value from November’s peak. Prices rallied back in March, restoring some of the losses. Then crypto fell hard again, with bitcoin down more than 60% from its all-time high and other cryptocurrencies harder hit. The market’s message was clear: Crypto winter was no longer coming. It’s here.

If you’ve got questions about the crypto crash, the Protocol Fintech team has answers.

Keep Reading Show less

How the founders of HalloApp plan to fix social media

Former WhatsApp execs talk about lessons learned building their privacy-focused platform.

Image: HalloApp

Stop me if you've heard this one before: An app that promises to be the anti-Facebook is focusing on real connections instead of ads and brands. Of course, this has been tried before. There’s an entire digital graveyard littered with the corpses of apps that tried and failed to offer a compelling alternative to the inescapable social network. But maybe two former Facebook employees who were instrumental at WhatsApp know the secret to drawing in users — and keeping them.

Neeraj Arora and Michael Donohue, who served as WhatsApp’s chief business officer and engineering director, respectively, started HalloApp in late 2019, dubbing it the “first real-relationship network.” Arora helped negotiate WhatsApp’s $22 billion sale to Meta (then known as Facebook Inc.) in 2014. He realized after joining the social giant that Facebook’s advertising-focused business model wasn’t serving its users and set out to create an alternative.

Keep Reading Show less
Nat Rubio-Licht

Nat Rubio-Licht is a Los Angeles-based news writer at Protocol. They graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in newspaper and online journalism in May 2020. Prior to joining the team, they worked at the Los Angeles Business Journal as a technology and aerospace reporter.

Climate

Business travel is Big Tech’s next climate challenge

Tech companies are waking up to the dangers business flights pose to the climate. Now, they’re trying to help employees figure out how to choose modes of travel that emit less carbon pollution.

Despite the fact that companies are focused more on cutting carbon, few have specific guidelines for individual employees on how to choose flights.

Photo: Gary Lopater via Unsplash

There’s no way around it: Business flights are frying the planet.

About 90% of business travel carbon emissions come from flying, and just 1% of travelers — many of whom fly for work — are responsible for 50% of all air travel carbon pollution. As the tech industry continues to make sweeping net zero pledges, actually getting there will require making smarter choices when it comes to flying.

Keep Reading Show less
Michelle Ma

Michelle Ma (@himichellema) is a reporter at Protocol, where she writes about management, leadership and workplace issues in tech. Previously, she was a news editor of live journalism and special coverage for The Wall Street Journal. Prior to that, she worked as a staff writer at Wirecutter. She can be reached at mma@protocol.com.

Latest Stories
Bulletins