Key changes to the federal government’s elections bill were made so late in the process that there wasn’t enough time for Google to suggest adjustments that would allow the company to comply with the new law, company representatives said Thursday.
Earlier this year, Google announced it was banning political advertising ahead of the October election due to challenges caused by new rules imposed by Bill C-76, the government’s election transparency law that passed in December. Envoys from the company appeared at the House of Commons privacy committee on Thursday to explain their decision.
Jason Kee, who is part of Google Canada’s policy and governmental relations team, said the key amendments that troubled the company’s engineers were added during a House committee’s examination of the bill. By that point, the witness list was closed and Google wasn’t able to offer alternate language until much later, when the bill was being studied in the Senate.
Conservative MP John Nater said he was “incredulous” that the government was in such a rush to get the bill passed that “the consultation never happened with those who would be implementing this legislation.”
Google’s concerns revolved around the same-day registry required for political advertising, which would allow voters to see who is advertising and how much they are spending. Kee said the company’s suggested changes to the bill amounted to about 15 words worth of amendments which would have allowed them to comply with the new law.
The key technical challenge for the company is the requirement for registries on all platforms running ads, even third-party advertisers that use Google’s massive advertising business. Between them, Facebook and Google sell about half the world’s ads.
“We had to make a decision abut whether or not we could comply with the legislation in the timeframe allowed, and we couldn’t,” said Colin McKay, Google Canada’s head of public policy
The new election law also raised technical problems for Google on the requirement that “issue-based” ads be displayed in the registry. Kee “it’s very difficult to identify these” and said that provision is the key difference in the registries Google has provided for other countries.
Not taking this as seriously as you should have is a detriment to our democracy
Pressed by MPs at the committee, Kee and McKay wouldn’t commit to complying with the rules even for a hypothetical election in 2023.
Earlier in the year, Facebook announced that it expected to have a registry ready to launch by the summer and MPs quizzed the representatives from Google about why that’s possible for Facebook, but not Google.
“Their advertising systems work very, very differently than ours,” said Kee.
Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith pointed out that Google made $8.5 billion in the fourth quarter of 2018 and accused the company of dismissing the laws of smaller jurisdictions.
“You have a company that makes billions of dollars … and says your democracy doesn’t matter to us. We are just not important enough for Google,” said Erskine-Smith. “Not taking this as seriously as you should have is a detriment to our democracy and you should have done better.”
Google’s decision to simply opt out of political advertising has a precedent: the company did the same thing last year in Washington, when the state introduced rigorous new transparency rules.
Since the ban, Google has sold nearly $20,000 worth of political ads for local elections in Washington, reported The Stranger, an alternative weekly newspaper in Seattle.
One candidate for the state legislature shared an email with the newspaper that showed a Google sales representative encouraging the candidate to buy advertising despite the ban. A local campaign for a ballot measure in Spokane was even able to purchase more than a million ad impressions targeting voters, nine months after the ban came into effect.
The company said these purchases are a breach of its terms of service and it takes measures to block and remove ads that are in violation.
For the Canadian election, Google plans to use an automated system and a team of people to examine ads for political or issue-based content that won’t be allowed. Kee said the company now has more than 10,000 people working on its “trust and safety” team reviewing content and they are in the process of assembling a specific team for the October federal election.
• Email: firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: stuartxthomson