Google is suspending adverts related to a referendum in Ireland on whether or not to overturn a constitutional clause banning abortion. The vote is due to take place in a little over two weeks time.
“Following our update around election integrity efforts globally, we have decided to pause all ads related to the Irish referendum on the eighth amendment,” a Google spokesperson told us.
The spokesperson said enforcement of the policy — which will cover referendum adverts that appear alongside Google search results and on its video sharing platform YouTube — will begin in the next 24 hours, with the pause remaining in effect through the referendum, with the vote due to take place on May 25.
The move follows an announcement by Facebook yesterday saying it had stopped accepting referendum related ads paid for by foreign entities. However Google is going further and pausing all ads targeting the vote.
Given the sensitivity of the issue a blanket ban is likely the least controversial option for the company, as well as also the simplest to implement — whereas Facebook has said it has been liaising with local groups for some time, and has created a dedicated channel where ads that might be breaking its ban on foreign buyers can be reported by the groups, generating reports that Facebook will need to review and act on quickly.
Given how close the vote now is both tech giants have been accused of acting too late to prevent foreign interests from using their platforms to exploit a loophole in Irish law to get around a ban on foreign donations to political campaigns by pouring money into unregulated digital advertising instead.
Speaking to the Guardian, a technology spokesperson for Ireland’s opposition party Fianna Fáil, described Google’s decision to ban the adverts as “too late in the day”.
“Fake news has already had a corrosive impact on the referendum debate on social media,” James Lawless TD told it, adding that the referendum campaign had made it clear Ireland needs legislation to restrict the activities of Internet companies’ ad products “in the same way that steps were taken in the past to regulate political advertising on traditional forms of print and broadcast media”.
We’ve asked Google why it’s only taken the decision to suspend referendum ad buys now, and why it did not act months earlier — given the Irish government announced its intention to hold a 2018 referendum on repealing the Eighth Amendment in mid 2017 — and will update this post with any response.
In a public policy blog post earlier this month, the company’s policy SVP Kent Walker talked up the steps the company is taking to (as he put it) “support… election integrity through greater advertising transparency”, saying it’s rolling out new policies for U.S. election ads across its platforms, including requiring additional verification for election ad buyers, such as confirmation that an advertiser is a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident.
However this U.S.-first focus leaves other regions vulnerable to election fiddlers — hence Google deciding to suspend ad buys around the Irish vote, albeit tardily.
The company has also previously said it will implement a system of disclosures for ad buyers to make it clear to users who paid for the ad, and that it will be publishing a Transparency Report this summer breaking out election ad purchases. It also says it’s building a searchable library for election ads.
Although it’s not clear when any of these features will be rolled out across all regions where Google ads are served.
Facebook has also announced a raft of similar transparency steps related to political ads in recent years — responding to political pressure and scrutiny following revelations about the extent of Kremlin-backed online disinformation campaigns that had targeted the 2016 US presidential election.