Last week on the Google Public Policy Blog, Peter Greenberger of Google's Elections and Issue Advocacy Team posted Google's new guidelines for political advertising on the site. Most of the guidelines seem fairly straightforward and sensible to me since they relate to general principles of fairness and transparency. But sandwiched in between those principles is the following guideline:
No attacks on an individual's personal life. Stating disagreement with or campaigning against a candidate for public office, a political party, or public administration is generally permissible. However, political ads must not include accusations or attacks relating to an individual's personal life, nor can they advocate against a protected group. So, "Crime rates are up under Police Commissioner Gordon" is okay, but "Police Commissioner Gordon had an affair" is not.
I understand what Google is trying to do here in terms of making the Net a more civil place to engage in deliberative democracy without all the mud-slinging and name-calling. In one sense, I applaud them for that. On the other hand, the world is not a perfect place and candidates are not perfect people. And, candidates for office are not just like any other citizen in our society. They are people who will be given power over other people. Power over our lives, our liberties and fate of the nation.
And because of that, I've always believed that we deserve to know a little more about our candidates and elected leaders than just any ol' John or Jane Q. Public. We deserve to get answers to tough questions, including some questions that might even relate to their personal lives. Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying that politicians have zero privacy rights. But should they really have the exact same privacy expectations as the rest of us? I don't think so.
And this is where Google's new policy is likely to get the company in some hot water in the future. Practically speaking, it's going to force the company to make a large number of tough calls about what constitutes "attacks on [a politician's] personal life." Some cases will be easy... say a tasteless ad going after the child of a politician for some reason. But many others will be quite difficult in an era of "SwiftBoat" politics. Perhaps Commissioner Gordon's affair should be fair game for political advertising, especially if that affair was with another member of his administration. (For example, have you been following what's been happening with Detroit's mayor recently? Is that fair game for political advertising on Google by an opposing candidate?)
Again, I'm not saying there are any easy answers here, but Google is going to be asked to make some Solomonic judgment calls about what constitutes acceptable political advertising in coming years. I wish them luck--and I support their right to craft whatever policy they wish on this front--but I encourage them to be cautious about trying to root out all inflammatory online advertising since some important issues (and speech rights) could be in play here.
One thing is certain, no matter what Google decides, some politician or political group out there will be really angry with them! They're in a damn difficult position.