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On Thursday evening, Google made a surprise announcement about their policies for political ads. Moving forward, Google will limit how campaigns and political organizations can target voters only allowing targeting by “age, gender, and general location (postal code level).”
Google’s actions might feel like they come out of left field but many disinformation researchers and advocates have been pushing to end or limit targeted digital advertising for a while now. Senator Ron Wyden has also previously called on tech platforms to ban microtargeting because of how it’s used for voter suppression ads. And just two weeks ago Mozilla called on Google and Facebook to stop allowing microtargeting of political ads. FEC Chair Ellen Weintraub has also recently called for the tech platforms to end microtargeting..
How do the campaigns and organizations feel about the change? Not great. Several Democratic consultants have signed onto a letter condemning the change and the Democratic party committees released a joint statement opposing it as well. Trump Campaign Manager Brad Parscale claims this is another attempt to rig the election against Trump but also Sanders and Warren. The most nuanced take I’ve seen the practical implications of Google’s change comes from an interview that Slate’s April Glaser did with a Dem and GOP digital ad strategist.
Personally, I was surprised by Google’s announcement. Limiting targeting for political ads wasn’t on my wishlist for what Google can and should be doing to fight online toxicity. In my Buzzfeed piece about Twitter’s political ad policy changes, I purposely left Google out. I’d much rather Google focused on fixing the radicalization engine that is YouTube than limit their political ad targeting.
I’m not against ad targeting. But I’m not sure we’ve had a robust enough public debate about it either, especially when you consider how targeting can be used to run digital voter suppression ad campaigns. It’s the kind of thing that a functioning U.S. government, one that actually cared about election integrity and privacy rights, would probably have spent the last few years debating. Instead, the tech companies are left to come up with ad policies completely on their own. It’s a terrible situation for campaigns but more importantly for voters.
Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, giving a must-watch keynote address to the ADL, illustrates the problem perfectly:
The Silicon Six—all billionaires, all Americans—who care more about boosting their share price than about protecting democracy. This is ideological imperialism—six unelected individuals in Silicon Valley imposing their vision on the rest of the world, unaccountable to any government and acting like they’re above the reach of law. It’s like we’re living in the Roman Empire, and Mark Zuckerberg is Caesar. At least that would explain his haircut.
Here’s an idea. Instead of letting the Silicon Six decide the fate of the world, let our elected representatives, voted for by the people, of every democracy in the world, have at least some say.
Sadly, in America, our elected representatives won’t be regulating Big Tech until at least 2021, after the presidential election is over.