TTP + Common Cause Investigation: Google’s Continued Failure to Stop Exploitative Ads Targeting American Voters
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: October 5, 2020
Contact: Michael Clauw, firstname.lastname@example.org, 202.780.5750
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Campaign for Accountability (CfA), a nonprofit watchdog group that runs the Tech Transparency Project (TTP), and Common Cause (CC), a nonpartisan government reform advocacy group, released a report revealing that Google failed to remove exploitative ads served to users searching for voting information. TTP first highlighted the prevalence of predatory and misleading ads served alongside voting-related search results in a June report. Google publicly stated that it would remove some of ads identified by TTP’s June report, but a review conducted in September found that searching Google for terms like “absentee ballot,” “early voting,” and “vote by mail” in a selection of battleground states generated more than 70 ads for sites that try to plant unwanted software on people’s browsers or direct them to low-quality search sites that serve up questionable results.
Jesse Littlewood, Vice President for Campaigns at Common Cause said, “Common Cause is dedicated to protecting eligible voters from being disenfranchised, and that includes online deception and misinformation. The Tech Transparency Project first highlighted problems with Google’s advertising product with voting-related searches back in June. But this research shows these problems continue to persist on the platform.”
CfA Executive Director Michelle Kuppersmith added, “Although Google removed some of the ads highlighted in our June report, three months later, users are still seeing similar predatory ads. The ads we uncovered raise the question of whether Google has made enough of an effort in the time since to patch the holes in its system. Either way, Google appears to be either unwilling or unable to make enough changes necessary to ensure the accurate and expedient delivery of voting information.”
Following the initial findings released in June, TTP and Common Cause conducted new Google searches between Sept. 3 and Sept. 22, and found that users seeking basic information about voting are still inundated with confusing and exploitative ads. The review found at least 73 ads pointing users to browser hijackers and search arbitrage sites after searching for “absentee ballot,” “early voting,” “vote by mail,” “how to vote,” “register to vote,” and other election-related terms in key battleground states.
Browser hijackers are deceptive browser extensions that prompt people, often unwittingly, to install software that routes them to ad-laden sites and may mine their personal data. Search arbitrage sites are low-quality search sites that take out ads on Google to lure users and often serve up sketchy results, including links to other arbitrage sites and browser hijackers. The goal in both cases is to keep users on search pages as long as possible so that they see more ads. Both categories of ads were identified in TTP’s June report, and appear to violate Google’s advertising policies and run counter to Google’s pronouncements about protecting election integrity.
Ms. Kuppersmith continued, “Any Google search should deliver users the most accurate possible information. Yet, because Google relies on ad revenue to keep the lights on, it far too often allows its paying clients to place their own ‘information’ ahead of the truth. With the election less than five weeks away, it’s more important than ever that Google steps up its ad review process to ensure that voters are not distracted or dissuaded by predatory ads.”
Campaign for Accountability is a nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog organization that uses research, litigation, and aggressive communications to expose misconduct and malfeasance in public life and hold those who act at the expense of the public good accountable for their actions.