Google moves to ban political advertising, Steve Kuncewicz explains why

As Elections around the world are increasingly fought and potentially won online, the role of web and social media platforms in the dissemination of political advertising is a topical and complex issue. The content of Political Advertising tends to be fairly unregulated, save in relation to funding disclaimers in the US and Party Political Broadcast Ads in the UK, but as at least some regulation of the online world is starting to become more and more possible. Most visibly in the UK, tech giants have been put under increased pressure to take more responsibility over how their platforms are used by politicians. Although Twitter has already moved to ban political advertising, Facebook has refused to do so – even in the face of the Cambridge Analytica scandal which revolved around surreptitious micro-targeting of users and saw the company agreeing to pay the ICO’s recent £500,000 fine – without an admission of liability.

Google is arguably the biggest player in search, and its background as an advertising and marketing platform stretch further back than Twitter and Facebook’s moves to monetise their platform.

Many use Google to find relevant information about political campaigns, meaning that their new stance on political advertising is ostensibly a big deal.

Campaigns won’t be able to match their own database of prospective voters against its user base to target individuals on any of its platforms, including YouTube, and doctored videos, deep-fakes and “demonstrably false claims” could lead to a ban. Google’s combined share of the UK social media market across search, voice and video also means that this new stance could put a real dent in the social ambitions of the main players in both the UK and US Election Campaigns.

Ultimately, this stance takes the middle ground between Facebook and Twitter - emphasising the importance of “robust political dialogue” and only taking action where there are “clear violations” of its policies.

Uploading huge user databases to online platforms has always been an inherently risky proposition, mainly as it has tended to happen without the user’s knowledge – raising many obvious privacy concerns. Google has made it very clear that contextual targeting won’t be affected by the change in policy, mainly as it isn’t as dependent upon first party data and doesn’t involve micro-targeting, which is one of several examples of the Ad Tech Industry pivoting away from data-heavy campaigns towards more traditional and safer approaches. The ICO in particular has its sights set on the sector, and has already found that large amounts of personal data obtained through programmatic campaigns are being retained by players in the market – along with its recent guidance on how personal data can be used during campaign season.

Google’s new approach leans on transparency, the lack of which has led to significant criticism and regulatory pressure over the last few years. Micro-targeted ads are becoming a riskier proposition in general, and the debate around political advertising looks to be giving some of the major platforms an opportunity to nail their colours to a particular mast and come out in favour of their users rather than profit. It must be noted (at least, at the surface level – the suggestion is that we still don’t know just how much money is spent on political advertising via Google), and to be seen to take greater responsibility to try and stave off greater regulation against a backdrop of the public being more in favour of it. 

Whilst Facebook, Twitter and TikTok have already taken a position on political ads, Google doing so may lead to other similar moves and may influence the shape of the UK Government’s proposals on regulating Online Harms*, notably the suggested duty of care to protect users of online platforms. It’s doubtful that this change will force Facebook to reassess its own stance, however.

Advertising in the UK is policed by a system of self-regulation, and this move is an example of the Ad Tech Industry looking to police itself. Changes to commercial policies could end up having a more sweeping effect than any action that the ASA could take if its remit stretched that far, although it’s already clear that a political ad on Google will need to be a real example of fake news to be caught by this new policy. For now, it remains to be seen how this will all play out in practice – the real effect may not be seen until the 2020 US Election, even if Google have made it clear that the changes will be made well before the UK General Election.

Steve Kuncewicz, head of creative, digital and marketing law at insurance risk and commercial specialist BLM.

 *  Steve Kuncewicz in partnership with Airmic recently produced an Online Harms Whitepaper providing information about the Government’s intention to introduce a world-leading package of online safety measures that also supports innovation and a thriving digital economy. To access the complete guide please login or register on the Airmic website.

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