Arguing Google's singular dominance over internet searches presents a danger to democracy, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard filed a lawsuit Thursday in California against the tech giant over its alleged censorship of her campaign.
Gabbard says that for about six hours after the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, Google suspended her campaign's ad account without warning, making it impossible for the campaign to advertise during a spike in internet searches related to the Hawaii Democrat.
Google says the campaign's account was automatically suspended due to a billing discrepancy, but Gabbard maintains that the company was intentionally blocking her access to voters through search engine ads. Gabbard has been outspoken about her goal to break up large tech companies, her support for net neutrality, and what she views as Silicon Valley's threats to democracy.
"Google may blame this on automated systems, but the reality is that there is no transparency whatsoever, which makes it difficult to determine the truth."
—Cullen Tiernan, campaign spokesperson
"Google's discriminatory actions against my campaign are reflective of how dangerous their complete dominance over internet search is, and how the increasing dominance of big tech companies over our public discourse threatens our core American values," Gabbard said in a statement. "This is a threat to free speech, fair elections, and to our democracy, and I intend to fight back on behalf of all Americans."
Searches related to Gabbard rose during and after the debate, but the campaign's account was blocked from 9:30pm that evening until 3:30am, leaving it unable to buy ads that would show up in search results.
Gabbard "had no ability to really speak to the people who wanted to hear from her" while many viewers of the debate were taking an interest in her, her attorney, Brian Dunne, told Politico.
Other candidates have strongly supported net neutrality and called for big tech companies to be broken up as well, but the campaign argued the Google saw Gabbard as a rising threat when her traffic spiked.
"You have a candidate who's been outwardly adverse towards Google, and is not necessarily seen as a champion of their favorite policy interests, who was reaching never before seen popularity," Dunne added. "The timing is too coincidental."
The company has also directed emails from Tulsi Now, Inc., Gabbard's campaign committee, into spam folders in users' inboxes at "a disproportionately high rate," the lawsuit alleges.
Google told the campaign the account had been suspended due to "problems with billing information or violations of our advertising policies," before clarifying that it had detected "suspicious behavior in the payment activity."
On Thursday the company released a statement saying that its automated system temporarily disables accounts when it detects unusual activity "including large spending changes—in order to prevent fraud and protect our customers."
But Gabbard maintained that Google's ability to disable candidates' accounts without warning denotes its outsized control over the ability of politicians to communicate with voters.
"Google may blame this on automated systems, but the reality is that there is no transparency whatsoever, which makes it difficult to determine the truth," Gabbard's spokesperson, Cullen Tiernan, told The Verge. "The fact is that the account was down for hours as searches for Tulsi were surging, and Google changed its reasoning from one excuse to another during the duration of the suspension."
The blocking of her ad account "should raise concerns for policymakers everywhere about the company's ability to use its dominance to impact political discourse, in a way that interferes with the upcoming 2020 presidential election," Gabbard said in a statement.