Allison Kilkenny: Unreported

Google Censors Political Donation Transparency Ads

Posted in Uncategorized by allisonkilkenny on December 17, 2008

Chris Soghoian

Should members of the public be able to pay for Web advertisements detailing which companies have donated to politicians? While this seems like a great way to promote transparency in politics, Google forbids the practice–we are free to name the politicians who take money but cannot name the companies that give it.

With Google’s domination of the search engine market, and the eyeballs that go along with it, the company’s AdWords text ads have become a key way for activists, politicians, and corporations to reach the general public. However, over the past year, Google’s excessively restrictive policies have resulted in the censorship of lawful advertisements that educated and informed the public.

In one the cases involving religious groups placing anti-abortion ads, Google backed down. As this post will explore, Google’s rather absurd, and little known, trademark policy seriously harms the ability of citizens to highlight the donations made to politicians by large corporations.

Trademarks and AdWords

Over the past few years, Google has waged numerous legal battles in order to allow its advertising customers to purchase keyword ads for trademarked phrases. Thus, for example, Nike can make sure that ads for its shoes show up when a Web surfer searches for Reebok.

Under Google’s current trademark policy, Nike can purchase advertisements that will display information for the company’s own shoes, such as “Visit to get great deals on shoes,” but Google forbids anyone but a trademark owner from using a trademarked phrase in an ad. Thus an ad stating that “Nike shoes are worn by Barack Obama, not Reebok” would be forbidden, even if Nike could prove it were true.

This example with two large corporations battling it out doesn’t really tug the heart strings. But what about the following few examples of ads, all of which are currently forbidden as per Google’s trademark policy?

  • A labor rights group that wished to place an ad stating that “Wal-Mart forbids its employees from unionizing,” whenever someone searched for the phrase “minimum wage.”
  • A public-interest group that wished to place an ad stating that “The RIAA has filed over 30,000 lawsuits against Internet users, many of whom were children, elderly, or even dead,” whenever a Google user searched for the words “file sharing.” 
  • An activist who wished to place an advertisement stating that “AT&T has given $7,500 since 2004. Who else has donated to the senator?” The ad would be displayed when Internet users searched for the name of a particular politician.

While these first two examples are hypothetical, the final one has actually been censored by Google. I know, because a few weeks ago, Google informed me that an ad campaign that I had run for the last 5 months was being terminated due to a trademark complaint by AT&T.

No sunshine allowed

As regular readers of this blog will know, I dabbled in a bit of tech policy activism in the state of Indiana earlier this year, working on a data breach bill that eventually became law. During the process of getting that bill through committee, I had a nasty run-in with a state senator who didn’t take too kindly to my blogging and was willing to hold up my bill as a way to force me to censor my criticism of his colleagues.

Once I left Indiana in May, I promptly registered multiple domain names for Republican State Senate whip Brandt Hershman, and Both domains point to a single Web page that lists every campaign donation that Sen. Hershman has received, from all corporations, for the history of his political career.

In addition to setting up this Web site, I also placed a Google ad campaign so that anyone searching for “brandt hershman”, “senator hershman,” or a few other similar keywords would see an advertisement pointing to my site:

What does money buy?

AT&T has given $7,500 since 2004.
Who else has donated to the senator?


From June until December of this year, the ad ran without any complaints. However, on December 5, Google notified me that it had suspended my advertisement, based on a trademark complaint:

Thank you for advertising with Google AdWords. After reviewing your account, we’ve found that one or more of your ads or keywords does not meet our guidelines.

Ad Issue(s): Trademark in Ad Content

-> Ad Content: Please remove the following trademark from your ad: AT&T.

When I appealed the suspension of the ad, Google replied with a bit more information, informing me that AT&T had complained about my use of the company’s trademark:

Thank you for your email. I understand you’re concerned that the term(s) AT&T has been disapproved in your account as a trademark.


Please note that we received a complaint from the trademark owner of AT&T. In their complaint, the trademark owner stated that they are the owner of the mark and that its use in certain advertisements is not authorized. Therefore, your ad was disapproved.

Google’s policies, in depth
Google’s official policy confirms its zero-tolerance stance toward trademarks in advertisements:

When we receive a complaint from a trademark owner, we only investigate the use of the trademark in ad text. If the advertiser is using the trademark in ad text, we will require the advertiser to remove the trademark and prevent them from using it in ad text in the future.


Google permits trademark owners to submit blanket complaints regarding the use of their mark in advertisements. This means that with just one request, a company can force the removal of every single advertisement that contains the trademark, even if the use is legitimate and lawful.

It’s useful to compare Google’s trademark and copyright policies. If a copyright owner (say, the Church Of Scientology or Viacom) wishes to force the removal of a link from the Google search index or videos from YouTube, that company must send an individual request for each file or Web site.

If Viacom wants to have 100 episodes of The Daily Show removed from YouTube, it takes 100 requests. However, if Viacom wants to force the takedown of 100 different advertisements that mention The Daily Show, it only takes a single request.

The requirement that copyright owners send individual takedown requests is an important speed bump that protects the fair-use rights of end users, who might be incorrectly accused of violating copyright. No such protection currently exists for Google AdWords customers who wish to lawfully comment on or critique companies whose names are trademarked.

Legal analysis
To make that I wasn’t making a fuss out of nothing, I spoke to a number of prominent legal experts, all of whom shared my concern regarding the impact on free speech and transparency in politics.

First, I spoke with Wendy Seltzer, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center (disclosure: I am also a fellow at Berkman) and founder of the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse. She told me that:

Google should be concerned that its actions here may actually hurt its (and its users’) ability to use trademarks for comparative and search purposes later. Google is now a large enough part of our Internet experience that its concessions to trademark bullies in AdWords could condition readers to think–incorrectly–that all uses of a trademark must be authorized by the trademark holder…

We need to resist this chipping-away at our rights to use brands to speak about the products they promote and things their owners do, and Google, as a major beneficiary of our prodigious use of language, should help us to do so.

Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute also shared similar concerns:

What (Google) seems to be doing is accepting any complaint as conclusive proof that a trademark violation is occurring. This is a very poor practice, and it grants trademark owners power well beyond their legal rights. On a platform as important as Google’s, that will result in a significant diminution of communication about corporations and, in this case, politicians too.

While he was concerned about the impact on free speech, Eric Goldman, a professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law, expressed some sympathy for Google, due to the risk of litigation by trademark owners:

Presumably, AT&T has requested Google not to let any advertisers display “AT&T” in the ad copy–whether the advertisers are competitors, pirates or political speakers. Google is within its legal rights to do so, and there is some legal support for Google’s position.

However, unquestionably, Google’s policy precludes legitimate trademark references such as yours.

This is not a good situation, but before we criticize Google too harshly, note that they face legal risks whatever they do, and they have tried to find a compromise solution…

Trademark law is so ridiculously expansive that Google feels compelled to implement illogical and chilling policies, so (in my opinion), the real villain is trademark law, not Google.

As both Goldman and Harper told me, Google is perfectly within its rights to refuse to display my advertisement, just as a newspaper or TV stations can refuse to air an ad. However, just as newspapers routinely publish advertisements that criticize companies, so, too, could Google, if it wished to.

The only recourse available to activists wishing to change Google’s policies is thus shame–a tactic that has worked pretty well in other similar situations.

Freedom of Speech and Abortion
Earlier this year, a British anti-abortion organization sued Google, after the search engine refused to display an advertisement that the group had sought. The text of the ad was:

U.K. Abortion law
Key views and news on abortion law from The Christian Institute



Before the lawsuit, Google’s policy did not permit the ads promoting Web sites that contained abortion and religion-related content. After a significant amount of bad press, and the settlement of the suit (brought under the United Kingdom’s Equality Act), Google reversed itself.

Google’s new policy allows religious associations to place ads “in a factual and campaigning way,” a Google spokesperson told the British media. She went on to describe the policy in more detail:

This means that their ads need to aim to educate and inform, not to shock. The ads can refer to government legislation, and existing law, and the alternatives to abortion. But, they cannot link to Web sites which show graphic images that aim to shock people into changing their minds.

Outside of the online-advertising space, U.S. telecommunications giant Verizon Communications caused a huge media firestorm in 2007, when it blocked short text message alerts by NARAL, a pro-choice group.

Within days of its anti-free-speech blunder, Verizon quickly backtracked. However, by then, the damage to its reputation was done. Both Congress and the FCC took an interest in the incident, leading to threats of oversight and investigation.

Obviously, abortion is a hot-potato issue that no Fortune 500 company wishes to get caught in the middle of. However, the issue for both Google and Verizon was the same–the companies sell products that enable people to communicate with each other. When they start deciding which kinds of information is appropriate to send, they risk a significant public outcry, as well as the attention of both regulators and Congress.

With any luck, Google will realize that its flawed AdWords trademark policy is hurting free speech and efforts to promote transparency in government. If it doesn’t, we all suffer.

Intelligence Policy to Stay Largely Intact

Posted in Barack Obama, torture by allisonkilkenny on November 11, 2008
Former National Counterterrorism Center chief John Brennan, leader of Obama's intelligence-transition team. (AP)

Former National Counterterrorism Center chief John Brennan, leader of Obama intelligence transition team. (AP)

Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON — President-elect Barack Obama is unlikely to radically overhaul controversial Bush administration intelligence policies, advisers say, an approach that is almost certain to create tension within the Democratic Party.

Civil-liberties groups were among those outraged that the White House sanctioned the use of harsh intelligence techniques — which some consider torture — by the Central Intelligence Agency, and expanded domestic spy powers. These groups are demanding quick action to reverse these policies.

Mr. Obama is being advised largely by a group of intelligence professionals, including some who have supported Republicans, and centrist former officials in the Clinton administration. They say he is likely to fill key intelligence posts with pragmatists.

“He’s going to take a very centrist approach to these issues,” said Roger Cressey, a former counterterrorism official in the Clinton and Bush administrations. “Whenever an administration swings too far on the spectrum left or right, we end up getting ourselves in big trouble.”

On the campaign trail, Mr. Obama criticized many of President George W. Bush’s counterterrorism policies. He condemned Mr. Bush for promoting “excessive secrecy, indefinite detention, warrantless wiretapping and ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ like simulated drowning that qualify as torture through any careful measure of the law or appeal to human decency.”

As a candidate, Mr. Obama said the CIA’s interrogation program should adhere to the same rules that apply to the military, which would prohibit the use of techniques such as waterboarding. He has also said the program should be investigated.

Yet he more recently voted for a White House-backed law to expand eavesdropping powers for the National Security Agency. Mr. Obama said he opposed providing legal immunity to telecommunications companies that aided warrantless surveillance, but ultimately voted for the bill, which included an immunity provision.

The new president could take a similar approach to revising the rules for CIA interrogations, said one current government official familiar with the transition. Upon review, Mr. Obama may decide he wants to keep the road open in certain cases for the CIA to use techniques not approved by the military, but with much greater oversight.

The intelligence-transition team is led by former National Counterterrorism Center chief John Brennan and former CIA intelligence-analysis director Jami Miscik, say officials close to the matter. Mr. Brennan is viewed as a potential candidate for a top intelligence post. Ms. Miscik left amid a slew of departures from the CIA under then-Director Porter Goss.

Advisers caution that few decisions will be made until the team gets a better picture of how the Bush administration actually goes about gathering intelligence, including covert programs, and there could be a greater shift after a full review.

The Obama team plans to review secret and public executive orders and recent Justice Department guidelines that eased restrictions on domestic intelligence collection. “They’ll be looking at existing executive orders, then making sure from Jan. 20 on there’s going to be appropriate executive-branch oversight of intelligence functions,” Mr. Brennan said in an interview shortly before Election Day.

The early transition effort is winning praise from moderate Democrats. “He’s surrounded himself with excellent people — an excellent bipartisan group,” said Rep. Jane Harman, a California Democrat who is chairwoman of the House homeland-security subcommittee on intelligence.

Civil-liberties and human-rights advocates, who helped Mr. Obama win election, are seeking both a reversal of Bush administration policies and expanded investigations into possible illegal actions when the administration sought to track down terrorists after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“We need to understand what happened,” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington office.

Most of those being discussed as candidates for director of national intelligence and director of the CIA have staked out a middle ground between safeguarding civil liberties and aggressively pursuing nontraditional adversaries.

Mr. Brennan is a leading contender for one of the two jobs, say some advisers. He declined to comment on personnel matters. Gen. James L. Jones, a former North Atlantic Treaty Organization commander; Thomas Fingar, the chief of analysis for the intelligence director; Joan A. Dempsey, who served in top intelligence and Pentagon posts; former Rep. Tim Roemer of Indiana, who served on the 9/11 Commission; and Ms. Harman have also been mentioned. Ms. Harman has also been cited as a potential secretary of homeland security.

“I’m very flattered that some folks somewhere think I would be qualified for a number of positions,” she said. “But I’m also looking forward to an eighth term in Congress working on many of these issues.”

None of the others could be reached for comment.

Another option for Mr. Obama would be to retain current intelligence Director Mike McConnell, who has said he would stay on for a reasonable time until a successor is named. CIA Director Michael V. Hayden also is open to considering an extension of his time in office, according to a senior intelligence official.

However, Mr. Obama voted against Mr. Hayden’s nomination as CIA director to signal his frustration with the administration’s warrantless-surveillance program, which Mr. Hayden helped launch as National Security Agency director.

Write to Siobhan Gorman at

Verizon and AT&T Gave Free Cell Towers to McCain

Posted in corporations by allisonkilkenny on October 15, 2008

Washington Post:

AT&T says Thanks John!

AT&T says: Thanks John!

Verizon delivered a portable tower know as a “cell site on wheels” — free of charge — to Cindy McCain’s property in June in response to an online request from Cindy McCain’s staff early last year. Such devices are usually reserved for restoring service when cell coverage is knocked out during emergencies, such as hurricanes.

In July, AT&T followed suit, wheeling in a portable tower for free to match Verizon’s offer. …

Ethics lawyers said Cindy McCain’s dealings with the wireless companies stand out because Sen. John McCain is a senior member of the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees the Federal Communications Commission and the telecommunications industry. He has been a leading advocate for industry-backed legislation, fighting regulations and taxes on telecommunications services.

McCain and his campaign have close ties to Verizon and AT&T. Five campaign officials, including campaign manager Rick Davis, have worked as lobbyists for Verizon.

Mind you, AT&T is the same telecommunications giant that helped the government spy on American citizens, and subsequently received total immunity for the deed. AT&T also partially sponsored the first two presidential debates, which is why no questions about FISA or NSA’s wiretapping were raised by moderators.

So really, it’s business as usual that McCain is receiving goodies from the very people he was hired to oversee.

In Washington, the motto is: We Are Family.