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Google, Citing MoveOn Trademark, Dumps Collins Ads

Washington – 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 Collins campaign posted several ads last weekend that included the name of MoveOn, the liberal political advocacy group that has already started to run negative ads about Collins on Maine TV stations.

A few days after the Collins ads went up, Google notified the campaign that the ads had been taken down, because MoveOn had claimed trademark violations.

Lance Duston -- Collins’s director of Internet strategy who placed the ads on Google’s AdWords program -- said he disagreed that MoveOn’s trademark had been violated to the point where Google had to take action. He said the law in this area was far from crystal clear.

“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.”

Adam Kovacevich, Google’s manager of global communications and public affairs, insisted that the takedown of ads when trademark issues arise is almost automatic.

“Under our advertising policies, companies and organizations that demonstrate that they own trademark rights can request that their trademarked terms not be used in any ad text,” Kovacevich said in a statement.

Google and MoveOn have been at the forefront of efforts in Washington, D.C. to pass laws and regulations that would, among other things, ban cable and phone companies from using their high-speed data networks to interrupt political speech over the Web.

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.

“Phone companies are supposed to deliver our messages, not censor them,” said Free Press policy directory Ben Scott. “We can’t trust these corporate gatekeepers. Congress needs to step in immediately to safeguard free speech and the free flow of information.”