Google has long played fast and loose with the sale of key words, leaning this way or that but claiming to have content- or politically-neutral rules of general application. Like a good big new media company, it may ultimately make whatever changes it has to get the heat off it, but it seldom acknowledges it was doing anything fishy.
We saw this with the bogus assertion of a trademark issue a year ago, done to protect MoveOn.org from online criticism. Google changed its practice but never acknowledged what was going on. Now, says the New York Times (via Glenn Reynolds), a lawsuit by pro-life activitists is changing all that:
In March, Google rejected an ad from the Christian Institute, a British organization, that read, in part, “UK abortion law: Key news and views on abortion law from The Christian Institute.”
The group, which wanted to advertise because the House of Commons was considering a bill involving abortion issues, filed a lawsuit against Google in April, saying the company was discriminating on religious grounds. . . .
In the past, Google would not sell the “abortion” keyword to religious groups, but did sell it to other groups, including secular groups, doctors offering abortions and resource sites like Our Bodies, Ourselves. . . .
Google reviewed its policy, and announced last Wednesday it had reached a settlement with the Christian Institute. Terms of the settlement were not disclosed, but Google immediately began allowing ads linked to abortion from religious groups as long as they were determined to be factual, and not graphic or emotional ads. Google uses a combination of automated and manual processes to detect advertising violations. The change in policy applies worldwide.
We don’t know UK law, but it would seem that in the US, this tactic would not have succeeded, at least to the extent it was based entirely on the risk of legal liability. Under the First Amendment, a privately – owned publisher has every right in the world to “discriminate” as to what messages it will publish, even for pay; virtually all do. And Google still isn’t a utility.
So, is this is victory for free speech, because a controversial key word is available to all sides that have something to say about an issue? Or is it a diminution of Google’s free speech rights because, on the threat of government coercion (i.e., a lawsuit), it has to make its platform available to messages of which it does not approve?