Sens. Warner, Blumenthal Slam Google Over 'Predatory' Coronavirus Ads

Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) have written the Federal Trade Commission asking it to "address" what they said is Google's continuing inattention of coronavirus-related abuses of its ad platform.

They argue the FTC has failed to act on Google's ongoing harmful activity. "Google has made repeated representations to consumers that its policies prohibit ads for products such as protective masks," they wrote. "Yet the company appears not to be taking even rudimentary steps to enforce that policy, such as easily automated and scalable actions like flagging ads with relevant terms in the outbound URL. in recent years has allowed the company a level of vertical integration that, in effect, allows it to act as the equivalent of market-maker, commodities broker, and commodities exchange for digital advertising." 

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The senators said their staffs had browsed the site using various devices and found ads for hand sanitizer and face masks, despite Google's announced ban on ads for face masks and its general ban on ads that capitalize on "sensitive events." 

"The senators pointed out that on March 10, Google said it was banning the face mask ads given that the surgeon general had urged the public not to buy the masks," they told the FTC. 

The senators sent a copy of the letter to Attorney General Bill Barr, suggesting they needed that law enforcement backup.  

"Given the Department of Justice (DOJ)’s successful work in combating similar misuse of the company’s advertising platform, we have provided a carbon copy of this letter to the DOJ to address this pattern of misbehavior in light of the FTC’s inaction," he said.

"We’re committed to protecting users and surfacing helpful, authoritative information as the coronavirus situation continues to evolve," said a Google spokesperson. "Since January, we have blocked millions of ads that attempted to capitalize on coronavirus and have implemented a temporary ban on all medical face mask ads. We continue to take action to protect users and prevent these ads from serving."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.