No company has embraced the liberating aspects of the Internet as a "new marketplace of ideas" more than the search giant Google. (The quote comes from Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, in a 1997 decision rejecting censorship aimed at protecting minors from indecent content.) But the company's new public statement about what kinds of political search ads it would or would not accept seemed, at first glance, startlingly uncharacteristic.
Google spokesman Adam Kovacevich says that the new guidelines are an extension of search ad standards previously in force but rejiggered a bit to accommodate the particular requirements of political speech. (Search ads are the little messages that appear alongside the results people get after making a search; advertisers buy them by bidding for terms that their target audiences are likely to use in search queries.) "We thought it was important that we be transparent on this," Kovacevich says. Most of the policy reflects good sense: Google will apply its standards equally regardless of the opinion expressed; Google requires that ads soliciting political donations state that such gifts are non-tax-deductible; Google will not tolerate ads that intentionally mislead as to the advertiser's identity. But one statement is drawing attention. Political ads on Google, the policy reads, "must not include accusations or attacks relating to an individual's personal life." Here's the example offered: it's fine to say "Crime rates are up under Police Commissioner Gordon," but saying "Police Commissioner Gordon had an affair" would be forbidden.
Google's ban on personal attacks means that paid political speech might be more constricted on the Internet than in other media—certainly a counterintuitive development. Google isn't alone in having a rule like this; though it has not posted its policies publicly, Yahoo has similar guidelines. "It's OK to criticize a candidate's record," says Richard Kosinski, Yahoo's VP for political advertising, "but not OK to attack a candidate personally."
Google's Kovacevich explains that the controversial restriction is not so much a legal concern as a reflection of the company's values. The company is avowedly idealistic (it's unofficial motto is "Don't be evil") and says it hopes to influence a wider sphere by its own actions. By refusing ads with personal attacks, it's as if Google is saying that campaign advertising shouldn't be evil.
Observers of technology and politics, though, consider the no-attack guideline, however well intentioned, too vague, too proscriptive or both. John Battelle, a writer and entrepreneur who has written a book on Internet searching, argues on his blog that "all public speech much be allowed, so that the real truth can be assessed by an informed public." That sentiment is seconded by Peter Leyden, director of the New Politics Institute, who thinks the policy "flies in the face of the ethos of the Web." Carol Darr, former director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet, offers this hypothetical: what if a politician is running against a foe who is a heroin addict, frequents swingers' clubs, and often spews racist and anti-Semitic statements. (What if Commissioner Gordon had a harem, not just an affair?) "It is ultimately up to the voters to decide what is unacceptable," she says.
But Google and Yahoo are doing the deciding. And neither company could definitively explain to me what consists of a personal attack and what is a fair criticism of a candidate's record. What about a smearing like the Swift Boat attack on John Kerry in 2004? Google's Kovacevich implied that their guidelines might well rule it out. Yahoo's Kosinski wouldn't speculate on whether a Swift Boat-style mugging would be permissible in a search ad, simply saying that it would be up to a committee that executes company policy to determine whether the ad would run. "They're going to run into difficulty determining these things," predicts Leyden. I agree.
Since search ads are a relatively new field, and since both Google and Yahoo are prepared to respond with the usual nimbleness of Internet operations, I suspect we'll see such guidelines evolve as candidates test the limits and citizens express their own views about what's fair game. Still, there's a rather large irony here. Google is expending its credibility and brain power to keep the personal dirt out of politics in the ads that appear alongside search results. But the search results themselves, following the pure Internet spirit of anything goes, are uncensored as to taste and accuracy. A single query on a candidate's name can routinely send a tsunami of unvetted information, much of it scurrilous. If we can be trusted to sift through that uncensored mass of mud and diamonds in our quest for learn more about our leaders, maybe we also can handle it when a rival of Commissioner Gordon reminds us of his marital misbehavior.