Are Attack Google Ads legal?

Update: The  Dawn Butler google ad appears to have been pulled. Whether this is just a contract coming to it’s end, or something else isn’t clear. In any case, if you search “Dawn Butler” on google now, there’s no ad. Intriguing, eh?

When I opened my gmail this Wednesday morning*, I “noticed a google ad headlined my account. “Watch Dawn Butler’s Shame” it said. The only other reference was “”.  YOu get a similar, if slightly longer winded version if you search for Dawn Butler on google. Intrigued, I clicked through, the advert taking me through to a BBC news report. I doubt the BBC is spending taxpayers money advertising against Dawn Butler, so it’s reasonable to assume someone else is paying for this ad.

The trouble is, there’s no evidence in the ad as to who. The obvious suspects would be the Liberal Democrats who are both second in Dawn’s constituency and web innovators. But if we don’t know who is paying for it, doesn’t it breach Electoral commission rules?

The electoral commission guidance on adverts is pretty clear in reference to election campaigns:

“Election publicity also includes materials that prejudice, criticise or disparage the electoral prospects at the election of other parties or candidates or (as the case may be) by prejudicing the standing with the electorate of other parties or candidates, even if that material does not expressly mention the name of any party or candidate”

“The intention of imprint requirements is to enable anyone to contact or trace the source of the material, for example, in case of any complaint or query about its content. There is no requirement for an imprint address to be a home address, as long as it is somewhere the person can be contacted.”

…and goes on to state that a breach of these rules is worth a fine of up to £5,000.

Now that advice applies to election periods, so I suppose whoever is paying for these adverts could claim they’re not electoral in nature, but in any case, surely we should have a right to now who’s paying for these adverts?

  • Just caught this error. I tend to write my posts in the evening, then schedule them to post duting the working day (which is how I get so much done at work, everyone! ) in this case, this means that the “Dawn Butler” google ad was live yesterday 1st April. As of 10.45 on Thurs 2nd April, it was gone.

11 Responses to “Are Attack Google Ads legal?”

  1. Chris

    I think lawyers would say ‘That’s interesting’. (In this case a word meaning ‘expensive’.) Given that the fifth result is to a Lib Dem Voice attack piece which itself links to the BBC piece you may be right in your guess – but I’m not as utterly convinced as you that someone at the BBC wouldn’t have advertised that way, if not using that language. Some of them are a bit overenthusiastic, technology-wise.

    I agree that there should be some clue as to who is sponsoring the sponsored links especially in cases of, um, prejudicial language, but that’s not possible in Google’s system, is it? Indeed part of their business is based on allowing people to bid against ‘other people’s’ keywords (i.e. trademarks) while obscuring their own identity so they wouldn’t want to upset that. Also, I’m not sure what you would do if it was a ‘non-aligned’ (officially at least) individual – insist they reveal their name and voting patterns for the last three elections?

  2. Letters From A Tory

    You can’t say that the rules only apply to election periods, then complain that Google aren’t forced to release details of who owns the ad? Surely personal privacy and private advertising is essential to the Google business model, so I doubt they’ll happily hand over someone’s address and credit card details.

  3. That's News

    This is an interesting point. Google might find itself in trouble under the rules regarding publishing electoral adverts as might any website that runs the advert, as they could be equally liable.

  4. hopisen


    I don’t think google should nesc be forced to declare who the advert is paid by but that the info should be in the ad itself (as the US has “I approve of this message” on their TV ads). If you attack someone, the public has the right to know it’s you who’s attacking.

    In this case, we don’t. The way it’s currently set up suggests that the BBC is running a campaign against Dawn Butler. To me that’s disingenuous at best, an outright lie at worst.

    If I took google ads or messagespace, I’d be really worried about this, because I’d have no control over someone targetting my subject area for untraceable attack ads.

    For example, If I were Iain Dale, I’d not want Labour to be able to run an ad on my blog about Eric Pickles without it being clear it was a labour attack (though I don’t know enough about google ads/messagespace to know if you might get this level of control already or if they’d insist on it- though it’s clear google don’t).

  5. hopisen

    (though actually thinking about it, if the google model makes it _impossible_ to do that, then Lfat’s right, at least some of the problem lies with google, though the primary responsibility has to lie with who-ever buys the ad, knowing it could breach electoral law.

    I would think that if a complaint were made, then surely the elec commission has to have the right to check who is buying the ad, no? Otherwise it’s the perfect electoral crime….

  6. CS Clark

    Couple of things – Google allows ads to run first without checking but is meant to check them within 24 hours or so, so they may have been removed by Google itself according to its arcane and arbitrary rules. Secondly, although Google’s editorial guidelines change regularly depending on how much money they need to make – I’m sorry, that should of course be ‘depending on the evolving ethical standards of the Internet’ – ads which portray individual politicians as corrupt have not been allowed in this past. See this old story

    You would have some control over the ads that appear in your ad area, so that shouldn’t be an issue – regardless of the anonymous aspect, sometimes people don’t want ads to appear promoting causes they disagree with. But I’m not sure exactly how you would flag something as an attack ad without the same sort of human judgement that Google uses after the ads has run. One story in the link above: ‘During the 2004 presidential campaign, a campaigner bought AdWords keywords for the word “waffles,” and linked it to the John Kerry presidential campaign Web site, playing on the claim that the presidential candidate couldn’t make up his mind on certain issues. ‘ In that case, surely you have to rely on people’s common sense.

  7. James

    Ads are there for me again now.

    I dislike the Liberals’ pomposity and hypocrisy as much as the next man, or more perhaps, but this seems fair game to me. It’s a link to the BBC, after all, not some spammy Liberal site.

  8. hopisen

    I disagree – if it said it was a lib dem campaign I’d have no problem, but the impression it gives is that it’s a BBC campaign, and certainly not that it’s someone doing the onlie equive of shoving a leaflet through your door.

    I’ve been tempted to try an experiment…

  9. Jag Singh

    Btw re: MessageSpace – one of the first things MessageSpace does when a publisher signs up is ask what kind of ads they don’t want running on the site. We’re nice and warm and sensitive to our publishers’ needs like that.

    Unlike that big, faceless beast called Google.



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