Citing incompatibility between the rapid and anonymized nature of programmatic advertising and new government regulations around election ads, the world’s biggest online ad seller says it won’t accept campaign advertising during the upcoming federal election.
Google Canada cited the government’s new rules around ad transparency as the reason it wouldn’t accept political ads during the election cycle.
In a statement to The Globe and Mail, Colin McKay, Google Canada’s head of public policy, said the ban would extend for the duration of the campaign. “We’re focusing our efforts on supporting Canadian news literacy programs and connecting people to useful and relevant election-related information,” he said.
Google’s decision stems from the December passage of Bill C-76, also known as the Elections Modernization Act, which requires online platforms such as Google to publish a registry of all “partisan advertising and election advertising” appearing on their platform during the election period.
The registry requires an electronic copy of every partisan ad or election advertising message published on the platform, as well as the name of the person who authorized its publication. Failure to comply can lead to fines or imprisonment.
The legislation applies to any online platform offering advertising inventory; that displays partisan or election advertising, and meets the minimum traffic thresholds of three million visits per month for English-language sites, one million visits for French-language sites and 100,000 visits for sites in any other language.
Google had been vocal in its opposition to Bill C-76. According The Globe, it had submitted a list of proposed amendments to the bill. Its primary concern was that the real-time nature of its advertising business—with ads sold in online auctions lasting a fraction of a second—prevents it from keeping an accurate registry.
“We’ve come to the decision that the best way for Google to comply with the Elections Act in the 2019 election cycle is actually to stop accepting elections ads as defined in the legislation,” he told the Globe. “It is painful for us.”
A National Post report, meanwhile, said that Google’s decision could leave election campaigns “struggling” to get their message out to voters. The report quoted Dennis Matthews, who oversaw advertising during campaigns for both former prime minister Stephen Harper and Ontario premier Doug Ford, as saying that leading digital platforms like Google, Facebook and Twitter now comprise about half of all campaign advertising.
“It’s a significant portion of any party’s advertising expenses,” Matthews told the Post. According to the recent Canadian Media Concentration Research Project, Google and Facebook alone account for 74.3% of all internet advertising in Canada
Meanwhile, a CBC report said that Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould plans to try and persuade Google to alter its stance. “Ultimately, they could change their mind … and we will encourage them to do so,” the CBC report quoted her as saying. “However, that’s Google’s decision as to how they comply with the law.”
Gould stressed that Google’s decision appears to have been made for “business reasons,” and does not reflect on the quality of Canadian laws. She also argued that Google possesses both the financial and technical wherewithal to establish a registry. Indeed, the company did previously establish an ad registry for the recent U.S. midterms, and is reportedly planning to create one for European Union elections.
The CBC also reported that the other online ad giant, Facebook Canada, plans to sell election ads, and will comply with Bill C-76. “Understanding the significance of this legislation, we intend to meet the legal obligations of Bill C-76,” said Facebook’s head of public policy, Kevin Chan, in an e-mail to the CBC.
The social media giant has been chastened by regulators in recent months for enabling interference in election campaigns. In an extensive September post entitled “Preparing for Elections,” Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg outlined the ad transparency initiatives the company has implemented since the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Zuckerberg said the company had internal discussions about whether it would be in the company’s best interests to ban advertising altogether. “Initially, this seemed simple and attractive,” he wrote. “But we decided against it—not due to money, as this new verification process is costly and so we no longer make any meaningful profit on political ads—but because we believe in giving people a voice. We didn’t want to take away an important tool many groups use to engage in the political process.”