On May 25, citizens of Ireland voted in a referendum and thereby
repealed the eighth amendment to the Irish Constitution, which has banned most
types of abortions in Ireland for more than thirty years. Ireland is a democratic country, and if their
constitution allows such amendments by direct vote, then no one should have a
problem with the way the change was made.
But most people would also agree that electorates should be informed by
any reasonable means possible ahead of a vote, including advertisements paid
for by interested parties who exercise their free-speech rights to let their
opinions be known.
In a move that is shocking both in its drastic character and
in the hypocrisy with which it was presented, on May 9 with two weeks remaining
before the vote, Google abruptly banned all ads dealing with the referendum
through its channels, regardless of whether the ads were paid for by domestic
or foreign sources. The day before,
Facebook had banned all such ads whose sponsors were outside of Ireland,
although there is no current Irish legislation regarding online
advertising. Google’s move was
breathtaking in its scope and timing, coming at a time when the support for the
yes vote in favor of repeal was looking somewhat shaky.
As an editorial in the conservative U. S. magazine National Review pointed out, the
mainstream Irish media were in favor of repeal.
Opponents of the repeal largely resorted to online advertising as being
both cheaper and more effective among young people, whose vote was especially
critical in this referendum. Shutting
down the online ads left the field open for conventional media, and thus
blatantly tipped the scales in favor of the yes vote. While Google explained its move as intended
to “protect the integrity” of the campaign, one person’s protection
is another person’s interference.
As the lack of any Irish laws pertaining to online political
ads testifies, online advertising has gotten way ahead of the legal and
political system’s ability to keep up with it.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, although issues of fairness are
always present when the question of paid political ads comes up.
The ways of dealing with political advertising lie along a
spectrum. On one end is the
no-holds-barred libertarian extreme of no restrictions whatsoever. Under this type of regime, anyone with enough
money to afford advertising can spend it to say anything they want about any
political issue, without revealing who they are or where they live. With regard to online ads, if Ireland has no
laws concerning them, then the libertarian end of the spectrum prevails, and
neither Google nor Facebook was under any legal obligation to block any
advertising regarding the referendum.
On the other extreme is the situation in which all media
access is closely regulated and encumbered by restrictions as to amount of
spending, when and where money can be spent, and what can be said. I suppose the ultimate extreme of this pole
is state-controlled media which monopolize the political discussion and ban all
private access, regardless of ability to pay.
For technological reasons, it is hard for even super-totalitarian states
such as North Korea to achieve 100% control of all media these days, but some
nations come close. Most people would
agree that a state which flatly prohibits private political advertising is not
likely to achieve much in the way of meaningful democracy.
But the pure-libertarian model has flaws too. If most of the wealthy people all favor one
political party or opinion, the other side is unlikely to get a fair hearing
unless they are clever and exploit newer and cheaper ways to gain access to the
public ear, as the pro-life groups in Ireland appear to have done.
What is new to this traditional spectrum is the existence of
institutions such as Google and Facebook which strive mightily to appear as
neutral common carriers—think the old Bell System—but in fact have their own
political axes to grind, and very powerful means to carry out moves that have
huge political implications. I wonder
what would have happened if the situation had been reversed—if the no-vote
people had been in control of the mainstream media and the yes-vote people had
been forced to resort to online ads.
Would Google have shut down all online advertising two weeks before the
vote in that case? I somehow doubt it.
Like it or not, Google, Facebook, and their ilk are now
publishers whose economic scale, power, and influence in some cases far exceed
the old newspaper publishing empires of Hearst and Gannett and Murdoch. But the old publishers knew they were publishers,
and had some vague sense of social responsibility that went along with their
access to the public’s attention. In the
days before the “Victorian internet” (telegraphy) gave rise to the
Associated Press, publishers were typically identified with particular
political persuasions. Everybody knew
which was the Republican paper and which was the Democratic paper, and bought
newspapers (and political ads) accordingly.
Even today, although the older news media make some effort to keep a
wall of separation between the opinionated editorial operations and the
supposedly neutral advertising and finance operations, many newspapers and TV
networks take certain political positions and make no secret of it.
But Google has outgrown its fig leaf of neutrality when it
says it is “protecting the integrity” of elections by arbitrary and
draconian bans on free speech, which is exactly what it did on May 9 in
Ireland. The fig leaf is now too small
to hide some naughty bits, and it’s clear to everybody who’s paying the least
attention that what Google did damaged the cause of one side in the
It is of course possible that the repeal would have happened
even if Google had not banned all ads when it did. We will never know. But Google now bears some measure of
responsibility for the consequences of that vote, and the millions of future
lives that will now never see the light of day because their protection in law
is gone will not learn to read, will not learn to use a computer or a smart
phone—and will never experience Google.
But hey, there are plenty of other people in the world, and maybe Google
will never miss the ones that will now be missing from Ireland.