Politics, Tech

Google Is Trying to Clean Up Political Ads

November 22, 2019
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This illustration picture shows the US multinational technology and Internet-related services company Google logo displayed on a tablet in Paris on February 18, 2019. (Photo by Lionel BONAVENTURE / AFP) (Photo credit should read LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP via Getty Images)

A mere two days after I argued that Big Tech needs to rethink its standards for targeted political advertising, Google responded!

I mean, not to me. But they unveiled a policy change that made it clear that the folks in Mountain View understand why the micro-targeted delivery of political advertising is less of a matter of free speech than a matter of civic health. If you missed it, you can read the argument here. The nub of the argument was this:

[B]ut it’s free speech that bypasses the marketplace of ideas—the very mechanism that makes all the arguably negative facets of free expression worthwhile. The power of Facebook is that it allows advertisers to propagandize to a robot-selected subset of the population who are most susceptible to their message and hide that message from those who might reasonably disagree.

Think of it this way: If a bunch of Nazis hold a rally, many of us believe that it’s better to expose their very bad ideas to daylight so that the rest of us know what the Nazis think, and how many of them there are, and who in our communities enjoys marching with Nazis. Listening to Nazis may be no fun, but in the end, free speech wins because the alternative is to have them festering and grooming their nonsense in secrecy and under cover of darkness.

But what if Nazis had a technology which allowed them to organize surreptitiously, hiding from public view, keeping themselves anonymous and cloaking their activity from observation by outsiders? Worse, this technology would use the latest advances in behavioral science and sociology to automagically search the globe and identify all the people most susceptible to Nazi ideology and deliver their recruitment messages directly—and exclusively—to them.

So it was good news on Wednesday when Google announced that it is going to take more active measures to protect against precisely those kinds of microtargeting that allow political actors to avoid exposure of their ideas. (No word yet from Facebook on whether they’re going to follow suit; I’m not holding my breath).

There are a couple of interesting items in Google’s press-release. For starters:

While we’ve never offered granular microtargeting of election ads, we believe there’s more we can do to further promote increased visibility of election ads. That’s why we’re limiting election ads audience targeting to the following general categories: age, gender, and general location (postal code level).

This is a tad ironic as it hasn’t been a month since AOC described this precise practice—the targeting of users grouped by zip code—as an example of the pernicious possibilities available to Facebook when she was questioning Mark Zuckerberg.

She’s not “wrong” to be concerned about this—if you target by age, gender, and zip code you can definitely reduce the “marketplace” of ideas to a shady back-alley but defanging the targeting to these three broad cohorts is better than nothing.

Also in the Google release was this:

It’s against our policies for any advertiser to make a false claim—whether it’s a claim about the price of a chair or a claim that you can vote by text message, that election day is postponed, or that a candidate has died. To make this more explicit, we’re clarifying our ads policies and adding examples to show how our policies prohibit things like “deep fakes” (doctored and manipulated media), misleading claims about the census process, and ads or destinations making demonstrably false claims that could significantly undermine participation or trust in an electoral or democratic process. [emphasis added]

These changes are definitely steps in the right direction … by Google. But as I say, this policy should not be left up to the individual companies to self-adjudicate. For one thing, it’s going to create an environment where no one will know when they’re about to run afoul of one or another company’s granular and (soon to be) highly legalese guidelines. Also, all this does is create an opening for a company whose sole purpose will be to do the things that Google is too ethical to do.

In other words, this is the kind of problem that cries out for legislative remedy.

The good news is that Congress doesn’t have to actually write the laws—they can just cherry-pick the best parts of what Google’s already saying they do. Like this:

We want the ads we serve to be transparent and widely available so that many voices can debate issues openly. We already offer election advertising transparency in India, in the EU, and for federal U.S. election ads. We provide both in-ad disclosures and a transparency report that shows the actual content of the ads themselves, who paid for them, how much they spent, how many people saw them, and how they were targeted. Starting on December 3, 2019, we’re expanding the coverage of our election advertising transparency to include U.S. state-level candidates and officeholders, ballot measures, and ads that mention federal or state political parties, so that all of those ads will now be searchable and viewable as well.

There’s your law right there. No need to overthink it. No need to abridge anyone’s rights of free expression. Just a clean and simple guideline on how to make sure that political demagoguery isn’t spread under the cover of darkness and is made visible for all to see. And best of all, I can’t imagine this running afoul of either the Left or Right’s existing pet peeves or priorities.

Who do I have to microtarget to get this ball rolling?

Yevgeny Simkin

Yevgeny (Genia) Simkin fled Soviet Russia as a child and has spent his life bouncing from music to comedy to software engineering. You can follow his comedy Twitter feed here. He's also the founder and CEO of The Russian Mob™—an agency specializing in developing SAAS, Mobile, AR, VR, and Web applications. (No: They won't help you hack a foreign election so don't bother asking.)