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Google and political campaign consulting

I was introduced today to Google’s Election and Issue Advocacy Team, a service designed to maximize the effectiveness of political advertising campaigns. Scott Brown’s successful Senate campaign made use of this service and paid Google’s AdWords program to ensure that Brown’s web page was the first sponsored link for any search on “Martha Coakley.”

According to what little I’ve read about this, Google offers this service to all comers. It’s a strategy that’s no doubt good for business, but one that I find disconcerting. First, Google holds itself out as a neutral purveyor of information. Should we still trust Google for its search results when it is taking money from political campaigns? Google would surely claim that its search engine is sacrosanct, and nothing would ever change other than sponsored advertising. Perhaps that’s true, but sooner or later Google will be asked otherwise tempted to tweak something in favor of a big, profitable client. Sure, that temptation might mean helping Ford over Toyota, and not Democrats over Republicans. But the very prospect of this infusing politics has, at the least, changed my opinion of Google for the worse.

Second, even if Google’s basic search results remain trustworthy, there’s the possibility that Google will now become a self-interested power broker in politics. Lawyer’s can’t represent conflicting interests because it compromises a lawyer’s independent judgment and increases the risk that confidential information will be either disclosed or used against a client. Doesn’t Google run into the same problem? Sure, Google says that it assigns different teams to clients on opposing sides of a campaign, but that is no different than the weak “Chinese wall” justification given by big law firms who want to play both sides of the street. People on “opposing” teams could easily talk about things over lunch, inadvertently disclosing information. And eventually, all teams report to someone who knows what is going on in both campaigns. That person at the top will wield considerable power. Might he or she be tempted to tip something in one direction in exchange for political favors in Google’s interest later on?

Third, Google has a lot of personal information about its account holders. Might Google not someday use that information to target ads about health care to people whose emails contain the words “health insurance” or “sick”?

Maybe this is a tempest in a pot of tea, and Google isn’t doing anything different than any other corporation or lobbyist trying to make money or gain political favor. Still, I can’t help but think that Google wields extraordinary influence over what people read and how easily they find things they want to read. Google already has financial incentives to warp what I read about its advertisers, but I guess I’m not that worried about the differences between mortgage companies or auto makers. I worry a lot more, however, when Google has incentives to influence what I read and think about those who hold elected office.

2 thoughts on “Google and political campaign consulting”

  1. Excellent points, all. You might enjoy Cory Doctorow’s story Scroogled, which plays out the implications in a little more detail.

  2. By the way, I think that concerns about political bias are serious enough that Google (and any media company that gets political ads) should be sure to release, in real time, data about who is paying what to them. That way, researchers could determine whether paying for prominence on Google Ads does anything to affect organic results on YouTube, Google, Orkut, or their many other subsidiaries and business partners.

    OF course, I predict that even if a researcher did find a correlation between paid ads and prominence in other venues, Google would say the researcher had a “biased sample” of organic content (given the personalization of search). And it might well refuse to disclose, on trade secret grounds, the baseline of results that its algorithm personalizes. It may well refuse to even admit or deny whether there is any such thing as a baseline that is personalized! We are completely adrift in the absence institutions designed to guarantee “qualified transparency.”

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