by Matt Miller

“OK Google, run my advertisement encouraging people to support a local ballot measure.”

“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

In a chilling development out of Washington State, Google has announced that it has suspended all political advertising on its platform in the state. “Starting June 7th, 2018, ads related to ballot measures and state and local elections in the state of Washington, U.S.A., will not be accepted,” says a recent update to the company’s political content policy. This means that the largest advertising platform in the world is now off limits to anyone wishing to speak about a candidate or ballot measure anywhere in the Evergreen State.

The root of the problem is a recently enacted rule from the state’s Public Disclosure Commission, which was necessitated by recent changes to the state’s campaign finance laws. The rule requires companies like Google to maintain extensive records for every political advertisement they accept, including ads about both candidates and ballot measures. For every single ad that runs on Google, the company must record—and make available for inspection—things like:

  • the name of the candidate or ballot measure involved;
  • the name and address of the person who paid for the ad;
  • the cost of the ad and what method of payment was used;
  • the date the ad ran;
  • a copy of the ad;
  • a description of the audiences targeted by the ad; and
  • the total number of people who saw the ad.

Google claims that it has suspended political advertising in Washington until it figures out how to comply with these rules. The company would be forgiven if it ultimately decides that compliance isn’t worth the effort, and that the ban will be permanent.

Consider what this means: The world’s most prominent outlet for media information has now censored all speech about candidates and ballot measures—prototypical First Amendment-protected expression—out of fear that the government will punish it for not publicizing confidential information. In an age when Google and Facebook are being penalized for not keeping private information private, it is particularly distressing to see these companies being punished for not helping the government to reveal private information.

Welcome to the increasingly fevered world of campaign finance regulation, where inchoate fears over “dark money” are used to justify all sorts of invasions of people’s constitutionally protected rights to speech and privacy. Here in Arizona, a pro-disclosure group called Outlaw Dirty Money has literally adopted the slogan “We Have The Right to Know.”

Is that true? Does the government have the “right to know” the identity of every single person who supports speech about a ballot measure? Many cities seem to think so. The city of Santa Fe, New Mexico, demanded the identities of people who supported speech about a municipal soda tax. Cities like Denver, Colorado, and Tempe, Arizona, have adopted similar laws. Some states are pushing back. Arizona passed a law this session preventing cities—like Tempe—from demanding lists of donors to 501(c) nonprofits.

Washington went the other direction and is claiming a “right to know” virtually everything about every form of speech about candidates and ballot measures in the state. The result? Google—one of the largest and most sophisticated companies in the world—has chosen to censor speech on its platform, rather than try to comply with the law.

This does not make voters better off or give them more information about elections. It keeps voters in the dark and stops important public debates from happening. Sure, elections can get messy, and sometimes people say mean or untrue or malicious things. But our republic has survived nearly 250 years of this sort of speech. What it cannot survive—as is shown time and again around the world—is mass censorship of speech about politicians and legislation.

Google’s decision should be a wake-up call for people who think that more campaign finance regulation is always better. There are constitutional and practical limits to the amount of information the government can demand. We have now, clearly, crossed over that line.

Matt Miller is a senior attorney at the Goldwater Institute.