“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. 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 state rule requiring 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.

Many cities are insisting on the “right to know” the identity of every single person who supports speech about a ballot measure, including Sante Fe, New Mexico, Denver, Colorado, and Tempe, Arizona. Some states like Arizona are pushing back, but Washington went the other direction, leading to Google’s decision to censor speech on its platform, rather than try to comply with the law. That doesn’t make voters better off and, in fact, keeps them 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.

Liberty in the News

This coming week, we’re in court defending the rights of Native American children who are subject to the racially discriminatory mandates of the Indian Child Welfare Act. That’s the federal law that makes it harder for state officials to protect Native American kids who are neglected, abused, or in need of special protections. Goldwater attorney Adi Dynar will be arguing the case on Wednesday at 9am PT in San Francisco. Video of the argument will be available the next day at this link.

The federal Right to Try Act is an example of federalism at its finest, with states leading while Washington follows behind. Americans almost always adopt a top-down strategy for political change, but change tends to come from the bottom up as state and local efforts rise through the political system.

National outrage is growing over unnecessary and burdensome occupational licenses that do nothing to protect public health and safety but instead outlaw competition and hurt employment opportunities. Blow dry salons are a great example of an unnecessarily overregulated industry. Some states are taking action to cut the red tape, and California is the latest to step up to the plate.