The conservative media world, from the Drudge Report to Fox News to the right-wing political blogosphere, was all atwitter last week with what appeared to be a classic "gotcha" story of blatant hypocrisy -- that do-gooding Google had banned ads critical of MoveOn.org. The debate spilled over into the Net Neutrality arena as the telephone companies and their paid defenders used the alleged infraction to argue that the incident was comparable to Verizon's censoring of pro-choice text messages or AT&T's censoring of a Pearl Jam concert. They tried for a hit on Google and Moveon, with collateral damage to Free Press and other advocates for a non-discriminatory Internet.
They failed miserably. The problem is that the story was wrong, and even the least little bit of actual checking would have showed that it was wrong.
Our tale starts on October 11, when the D.C. Examiner ran a column by Robert Cox with the headline "Google Bans Anti-Moveon.org Ads." Cox began his column: "Internet giant Google has banned advertisements critical of MoveOn.org, the far-left advocacy group that caused a national uproar last month when it received preferential treatment from The New York Times for its 'General Betray Us' message. The ads banned by Google were placed by a firm working for Republican Sen. Susan Collins' re-election campaign. Collins is seeking her third term.
"Earlier this week, Google told Lance Dutson, president of Maine Coast Designs, that the ads he placed for Collins had been removed and would not be allowed to resume because they violated Google's trademark policy.
"Google's Web site states, 'Google takes allegations of trademark infringement very seriously and, as a courtesy, we're happy to investigate matters raised by trademark owners.' That suggests Google acted in response to a complaint by MoveOn.org."
For the record, Cox is not a reporter for the Examiner. His piece appeared under a "Commentary" banner and he is identified as a member of the Examiner's Board of Bloggers and president of the Media Bloggers Association.
The story was picked up in all of the right (wing) places. Fox News had a story. Michelle Malkin noted it. Little Green Footballs chimed in. Even a trade-press publication, Multichannel News, wrote a version. That story, also on Oct. 11, framed the issue: "Google has removed paid ads posted by the reelection campaign of Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine, raising questions about whether the search engine is relying on a narrow view of trademark law to put the kibosh on political speech aimed at one of its public policy allies, MoveOn.org."
The Multichannel story quoted Dutson: "They are, in fact, suppressing political speech but the question is whether it is being deliberately done. I can't answer that question," Duston said. "I don't know what goes on behind the scenes at Google."
Unfortunately, few have bothered to check. Here is a threshold experiment. If Google is limiting political speech, would it also take out any other conservative ads? That one took about five seconds to disprove. I checked my Gmail account and there, inside my messages, were ads for John McCain, Mike Huckabee, Newsmax (conservative publication) and Bob Barr. Look on the site for Human Events magazine and there's an ad, served by Google, for Malkin's new book, and an ad for Republican campaign parapharnelia proudly displays Bush/Cheney bumper stickers. If Google were out to silence speech, it would be a very narrow effort to single out MoveOn. Nor is Google quashing nasty things about MoveOn.org. A search on Google for "moveon.org sucks" brought 244,000 English-language pages in 0.17 seconds of searching. So we are left with the ad.
Did MoveOn complain and have the Collins ad removed? Not exactly. As explained by MoveOn and Google, there is a form on the Google site that can be used to prevent someone else from using a trademark in an ad. Although the form is labeled as a "Complaint Form," suggesting action after-the-fact, it can also be checked off as a preventive measure, which is apparently what MoveOn did. According to the Google policy, MoveOn's trademark couldn't be used in ads. It now can, as Moveon has removed the barrier, according to MoveOn.org Political Action spokesperson Jennifer Lindenauer.
The form and the policy are publicly available to anyone. They were constructed as much as anything to help shield Google from lawsuits, and sets out the details for complaints and for the policy that applies to ads. For example, the word "MoveOn.org" could be used in a keyword search and not be a trademark violation
Lindenauer added: "Some time ago, MoveOn registered our trademark with Google - to protect our members from scams, phishing, and other misleading uses or impersonations of our trademark. Google applied their standard rules as they would with any trademarked organization. MoveOn believes in freedom of speech and expression. Since we've learned that political speech about MoveOn was made more difficult due to this trademark registration, we've asked Google to opt us out of it."
One can dispute whether the trademark law was properly applied in the policy, but there is no dispute that it in no way, shape or form was applied only to the Susan Collins campaign or to Lance Dutson. MoveOn applied it to any use of its trademark. The greater irony is that Google (and its YouTube affiliate), which are constantly under attack for disregarding intellectual property, are here under attack for being too zealous in protecting it.
The dispute tipped over into my sandbox, the Internet policy world, with the allegations that not only was Google trying to protect its ally, but that organizations like Free Press and Public Knowledge, my day-job employer, declined to comment on the story because Google and MoveOn are colleagues in the fight to preseve a non-discriminatory Internet.
As communications director for Public Knowledge, I was asked in an inquiry from Multichannel News if I had a comment on the story. Not having heard of the story and, frankly, being rushed with more pressing events that day (our PK fundraiser), I declined. Similarly, Free Press was asked for comment, and declined.
The Multichannel story included this little bit of innuendo: "Public interest groups allied with Google and MoveOn, such as Public Knowledge and Free Press, have hammered phone, cable and wireless companies anytime stories emerge that allege nefarious conduct by Internet access providers or mobile phone network operators. Asked about the Collins-Google matter Thursday afternoon, Free Press spokesman Craig Aaron said: 'I didn't even know about it, to be honest.' The Drudge Report, a popular news and political Web site, had a news story on the matter posted all Thursday afternoon.
"When Verizon a few weeks ago refused to supply the National Abortion Rights Action League with a five-digit short code to send messages to members with cell phones, Free Press was ready to pounce even though Verizon Wireless reversed itself almost immediately."
The Multichannel story voiced what some representatives of the telephone companies said in private and in public - that those involved in the Net Neutrality issue, like MoveOn, Google, Free Press and Public Knowledge - were all hypocrites. That analysis is similarly faulty on any number of levels, although I will confess to not being a close reader of the Drudge Report.
Verizon deserved to be criticized for its blocking of the NARAL Pro-Choice America text messages because it took its action based on a policy which no one had seen (and has not yet seen) in sending information to a group of people who had signed up to receive it. The action was taken on the basis of some secret policy on "controversial" issues, which shouldn't be at all relevant for private text messages. The fact that Verizon reversed itself is also irrelevant. It only did so after NARAL went public, after the New York Times ran a page-one story and after Verizon was criticized vociferously as exercising undue control over content. Had NARAL not gone public, had the Times not written a story and had that criticism not ensued, the Verizon policy, whatever it was, would still be in force today. Verizon's exercise of content control is exactly the same kind of action we are striving to prevent.
As we've seen, that situation is in no way similar to what happened with Collins' paid blogger and Google. Collins was not singled out. Google didn't play favorites. The policy was there for all to see. Dutson could have resubmitted the ads to meet the objections. He could now, as MoveOn.org has lifted its restrictions. I look forward to seeing them.
Trying to pick a partisan fight is fair game in politics. That's what Collins' paid blogger, Dutson, tried to do. He just happened to pick one in which the facts didn't add up and a number of media outlets fell for it.