Google AdSense policy curtails free speech

Or so says CNET's Chris Soghoian. Turns out Google censored a political ad Soghoian tried to run via AdSense because it used "AT&T" in the text, violating Google's policy on trademarks. And while Google's policy is clearly stated, the rule effectively squelches any ad-based attempt to hold corporations (and politicians) accountable to the public.

As Soghoian explains it, his use of AT&T was in no way meant to infringe on AT&T's trademark. Instead, he built a Web page listing every campaign donation received by Illinois Senator Brandt Hershman, and then placed a Google ad campaign aimed at letting the public know exactly which companies were bankrolling the senator. When anyone searched for "brandt hershman", "senator hershman," or a few other similar keywords, they would see this Soghoian ad:

What does money buy?

AT&T has given $7500 since 2004.

Who else has donated to the Senator

Soghoian says the ad ran for six months before he received notice from Google that it violated Google's trademark rules, which state that if it receives even one complaint from a trademark owner, the ad in question needs to change, period. Soghoian argues that while AT&T may not like its name being used in this context, the ad campaign is perfectly legal and an example of free speech and open politics--and he cites a couple of legal experts to back him up.

But the interesting part of the whole saga is the contrast between Google's trademark policy and its copyright policies, he says. Under the trademark policy, if Google receives just one complaint from a trademark owner, it removes every single ad that contains that trademark, "even if the use is legitimate and lawful." But when it comes to copyright, Google requires that the offended party, say Viacom complaining about copyrighted material on YouTube, must submit a complaint for each and every violation:

If Viacom wants to have 100 episodes of The Daily Show removed from YouTube, it takes 100 requests. However, if Viacom wants to force the takedown of 100 different advertisements that mention The Daily Show, it only take a single request.

Obviously, Google can do whatever it wants here. Just as other media outlets like newspaper and TV stations can decide to run ads or not, Google is fully within its rights to curtail ads any way it sees fit. But the contrast between its trademark policy and copyright policy is troubling. Is it just a case of new media needing to learn the political ropes, or is there something more nefarious going on. What do you think?

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