Google is taking the middle ground between Facebook and Twitter on political advertising

Key Points
  • Google had largely stayed out of the flap over political advertising between Facebook, which is accepting political ads even if they contain false claims, and Twitter, which has banned political ads altogether.
  • Google will accept political ads but police them for false info, and will only allow very broad targeting akin to TV or radio.
  • Political advertising is not a significant contributor to Google's revenue.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaks on stage during the annual Google I/O developers conference in Mountain View, California, May 8, 2018.
Stephen Lam | Reuters

Google has largely stayed out of the flap between Facebook and Twitter over political advertising. Facebook took a lenient policy of accepting political ads even if they contain false information, while Twitter imposed a ban on political ads altogether.

On Wednesday afternoon, Google changed its status, taking the middle ground between the two social media companies. In a blog post, the company explained it would accept political advertising, but police ads with false claims, and would let advertisers target ads only on very broad categories like gender, age, and postal code.

The move comes as regulators express increasing concern about the power of big technology companies and their inability to police their properties. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., originally introduced the Honest Ads Act in 2017. The bill, which proposes that online political ads follow the same transparency rules as TV and media, was reintroduced earlier this year.

In Wednesday's blog post, Google emphasized that its policies always banned ads with false information, but warned the company might not be able to catch every political ad that somebody claims is misleading.

"We recognize that robust political dialogue is an important part of democracy, and no one can sensibly adjudicate every political claim, counterclaim, and insinuation," Google said. "So we expect that the number of political ads on which we take action will be very limited — but we will continue to do so for clear violations."

Google's ban on microtargeting is in sharp contrast to Facebook, which has been used by political operatives to target ads at very specific subsections of voters, sometimes by using data that was harvested against Facebook's own policies.

Google parent Alphabet gets 84% of its revenue from advertising, largely from search ads, but with an increasing amount coming through its YouTube video platform. Political advertising is a small part of the pie. Google has received at least $121.9 million for 167,901 political ads in the U.S. since May 31, 2018, according to the company's "transparency report" on its website. Those figures are practically immaterial for a company that just generated $33.9 billion in ad revenue in the latest quarter.

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