Presidential candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s campaign was riding high in Google searches after the first democratic debate in June. Then, for what her campaign claims were critical hours, their Google advertising account suddenly went down.
Gabbard, a Hawaii Democrat, is suing Google for what her campaign claims was deliberate censorship by Googlers with a grudge against her campaign. But Google says the dispute is the result of an apolitical technical error.
“Google’s discriminatory actions against my campaign are reflective of how dangerous their complete dominance over internet search is, and how the increasing dominance of big tech companies over our public discourse threatens our core American values,” Gabbard said in a statement. “This is a threat to free speech, fair elections and to our democracy, and I intend to fight back on behalf of all Americans.”
Gabbard was the most-searched candidate after the first night of Democratic presidential debates on June 26, according to data Google tweeted from one of its company accounts. Her polling results have increased slightly since that debate, from 0.8 percent of Democratic support on June 26 to 1.2 percent on July 24, according to polling averages collected by Real Clear Politics.
But two days after the debate, when her campaign was still seeing significant web traffic, its Google Ads account was suspended, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday. The suspension prevented the campaign from promoting advertisements to people searching for Gabbard.
In its lawsuit, the campaign accused Google of changing its rationale for the suspension in the hours when the Google Ads account was dark. Gabbard and her campaign are seeking damages of at least $50 million from Google, the New York Times reported.
“To this day, Google has not provided a straight answer—let alone a credible one—as to why Tulsi’s political speech was silenced right precisely when millions of people wanted to hear from her,” the lawsuit reads.
In a statement to The Daily Beast shortly after the suit was filed, Google said it suspended the campaign account for unusual activity.
“We have automated systems that flag unusual activity on all advertiser accounts—including large spending changes—in order to prevent fraud and protect our customers,” a Google spokesperson said. “In this case, our system triggered a suspension and the account was reinstated shortly thereafter. We are proud to offer ad products that help campaigns connect directly with voters, and we do so without bias toward any party or political ideology.”
In its lawsuit, the Gabbard campaign alleged foul play:
“The explanation for Google’s suspension of the Account at exactly the wrong time is no great mystery: Google (or someone at Google) didn’t want Americans to hear Tulsi Gabbard’s speech, so it silenced her. This has happened time and time against across Google platforms. Google controls one of the largest and most important forums for political speech in the entire world, and it regularly silences voices it doesn’t like, and amplifies voices it does.”
The suit also accused Google of sending Gabbard campaign emails to spam folders at higher rates than other campaigns. (Other explanations include Gabbard’s staff not opening campaign emails, accidentally signaling a lack of interest in them, NBC reporter Ben Collins noted.)
Gabbard’s criticism draws on bipartisan complaints against Google. Like fellow Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren, Gabbard has called for the use of antitrust law to break Google into smaller companies. Her lawsuit suggests that the Google Ads suspension might have been in retaliation over the antitrust policy.
Gabbard’s allegation that Google interfered to stifle her political speech also mirrors complaints on the right, where Gabbard has received some favorable news coverage. Some conservative news outlets and political figures, including President Donald Trump, have accused Google of tinkering with search results, often with little evidence.
Gabbard’s suit cited an article by far-right news site Breitbart, which found a Google employee emailing colleagues that “there is obviously a moral argument to be made [to blocking Breitbart] as well as a business case.” The suggestion, which appears to have been a remark by a lone employee, does not appear to have been pursued by Google.
The candidate’s lawsuit also cites a recent settlement in which Google sold advertising space to some candidates in local Washington races, despite a company policy against local political ads in that state.