Today Tulsi Gabbard’s campaign sued Google for $50 million. Why? Because during the night of the first debate Google disabled her “advertising account” (I’m assuming she means adwords) preventing her from being able to purchase ads to direct searchers to her website. There’s also a paragraph in there that they’re “disproportionally putting her email into the spam folder.”
I read the complaint in the Gabbard suit (available from the NY Times). It’s kinda hard to read in a few places. The lawyers make statements that are clearly not factual (the First Amendment applies to Google advertising accounts) and others that are irrelevant (she’s a skilled surfer)
What I get from it is that Gabbard’s campaign was buying up lots of ads on Google the night of the first debate. Then their account was suspended. Google responses to the campaign as quoted in the complaint don’t look that suspicious to me. In fact, they tell me that Google saw some activity on their adwords account that was out of line with their history and so the account was suspended until someone could investigate. Google’s algorithms hate change and this isn’t surprising. Google had bland, meaningless boilerplates like most companies and the campaign didn’t like that.
The thing is, no where in this does she assert that Google delisted her website or did anything to change her organic search results. All she asserts is that they suspended her ability to buy advertising. If folks really were searching for Gabbard, surely they’d find her website, and her wikipedia article. They might not see any paid ads for her site, but I’m not sure why “not being able to buy advertising” is a first amendment issue.
She’s also asserting her email is being treated unfairly because it’s being filtered to the spam folder “more than other Democratic candidates.” What if the reason for that is she’s spamming more than other Democratic candidates? In any case, multiple laws protect the companies doing the filtering. As long as the filtering is being done in good faith, the companies are statutorily protected from legal liability. In fact, there are 2 decades of case and statutory law saying that mailbox providers have every right to filter or block mail as they see fit. I’ve detailed at least half a dozen cases here on the blog over the last few years – even going to courtrooms and watching the proceedings.
I am certainly not Google’s biggest fan, and find a lot of what they do problematic and intrusive. But in this case, I really can’t see what they’ve done wrong. Gabbard’s complaint boils down to Google inhibited her freedom of speech by prohibiting her from buying advertising on their during a specific 24 hour period (a lot of folks are saying her account was suspended for 6 hours, but I don’t know where that figure came from). I don’t really think the First Amendment grants us the right to buy advertising on a private ad network at a specific time.
Are there bigger issues with large social media companies and how they impact speech and our ability to communicate? Yes. Absolutely. There are significant issues with how they manage speech and what they allow. I’m not sure that Google is a social media company, though. Google is a data collection and advertising platform. The one bit of the company that might be a platform for speech (Google+) was shut down a while ago. Requiring Google to carry your ads is like insisting that the local newspaper publish your letter to the editor.
I don’t see this going very far. I’ve watched Google’s lawyers in action against someone expecting Google to change their filtering. I expect we’ll see a motion to dismiss on the basis of no valid claim. Google isn’t a public forum, nor a state actor; the internet is not public property. The judge may give the campaign an opportunity to rewrite the complaint, but unless they get better lawyers it’s going no where.