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The Hill reported Thursday that U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is suing Google “over claims that the tech behemoth violated her right to ‘free speech.'”
In a complaint filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, “Gabbard alleged Google censored her presidential campaign when it suspended their advertising account for several hours last month,” according to the report.
The Hawaii Democrat is seeking $50 million in damages.
If Gabbard’s allegations turn out to be true, it will represent a remarkable point in modern American history: a tech company trying to take down a presidential candidate.
But the lawsuit also raises questions about whether Gabbard, whose campaign has failed to gain much support in terms of polling numbers and financial contributions, is trying to grab headlines to raise her profile.
Indeed, The Hill observes that Gabbard’s lawsuit “marks the first time a presidential contender has sued a large technology company over such claims.”
A spokesperson for Google attributed the brief suspension to sudden “large spending changes” that set off Google’s automated systems.
The Gabbard campaign did not immediately respond to Civil Beat’s request for comment Thursday.
Often reading like a campaign brochure, the complaint identifies Gabbard as “a candidate millions of Americans want to hear from.”
Gabbard’s name is mentioned no less than 90 times in the lawsuit, many times by only her first name — as in “With this lawsuit, Tulsi seeks to stop Google from further intermeddling in the 2020 United States Presidential Election.”
While Google is identified as “one of the largest forums for political speech in the entire world,” in practice the company “plays favorites, with no warning, no transparency — and no accountability (until now),” the suit says.
At the core of the complaint is this remarkable scenario to suggest what may have happened the day after the first Democratic presidential debate in late June:
“On June 28, 2019 — at the height of Gabbard’s popularity among Internet searchers in the immediate hours after the debate ended, and in the thick of the critical post-debate period (when television viewers, radio listeners, newspaper readers, and millions of other Americans are discussing and searching for presidential candidates), Google suspended Tulsi’s Google Ads account without warning.
“For hours, as millions of Americans searched Google for information about Tulsi, and as Tulsi was trying, through Google, to speak to them, her Google Ads account was arbitrarily and forcibly taken offline.”
If that really happened, and if it can be proved in court, it’s shocking. The complaint accuses Google of trying to undermine Gabbard’s campaign, thus causing “irreparable damage” — hence the legal demand for $50 million.
But why exactly the Mountain View, California-based Google, whose parent company Alphabet reported $137 billion in revenue in 2018, would want to target Gabbard is not made clear in the complaint.
The complaint does say that Gabbard has “vocally called for greater regulation and oversight” of giant tech companies including Google. But Gabbard is not widely seen as a crusader on the issue, like U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who in March called for the breakup of Amazon and Facebook.
The lawsuit includes a tweet from Gabbard herself showing that she agrees with Warren and that she “will be introducing similar legislation in the House.” But press releases from Gabbard’s office since that time do not mention any such legislation.
The lawsuit also alleges that Google is biased toward Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who the lawsuit identifies as major recipients of donations from “Google-Affiliated donors.”
The suit states, “Not surprisingly, the Obama Administration championed many of the top policies on Google’s wish list, while Obama’s Federal Trade Commission closed its antitrust investigation of the company without any meaningful sanctions.”
Eric Schmidt, chairman of Alphabet, is identified as having counseled Clinton on strategy during her 2016 presidential campaign and that Google’s “pro-Clinton search bias may have shifted as many as 2.6 million votes to Clinton during the 2016 election.”
While Google is portrayed as favoring Democrats — but not Gabbard — it is also depicted as opposing Republicans. Google co-founder Sergey Brin and other high-ranking Google officers are said to have been dismayed by the election of Donald Trump.
“Their alarm may have been well-founded: In May of this year, Trump’s Department of Justice announced it was exploring whether to open a case against Google for potential antitrust violations,” the suit says.
In short, Gabbard contends that Google tried to damage her campaign by “tweaking its search algorithm” to disfavor her, blocking the candidate from its ad platforms and keeping her communications from “getting to interested voters” who use Gmail for email communications.
But the accusations seem to contradict some earlier claims of the Gabbard campaign.
On the night of that first debate — June 27 — Tulsi 2020 emailed supporters proclaiming in the subject line, “Tulsi Gabbard Shines in Breakthrough Performance at NBC’s Democratic Debate.”
What was the source for this claim? Google.
“She has been trending online throughout the country ever since with her name surging to the very top of Google’s top searched candidate list for night one,” the campaign said.
Whatever the merits of the complaint against Google, the Tulsi 2020 campaign on Thursday sent out an email request for donations citing the lawsuit as a reason to contribute.
“Google controls 88 percent of all internet search in the United States – essentially giving it control over our access to information” the campaign said. “That’s one reason why Tulsi has been a vocal proponent of breaking up the tech monopolies.”
The email pitch adds, “Big Tech’s dominance represents a clear and present danger to our democracy.”
Gabbard’s lawsuit comes as CNN is set to air two nights of Democratic National Committee debates Tuesday and Wednesday.
The candidate made headlines earlier this week saying that another presidential candidate, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), is not qualified to serve as commander in chief.
Her campaign, meantime, has sent out multiple requests for donations so that she can meet the polling and donation threshold needed to qualify for the third round of DNC debates in September. She’s not there yet.
As Civil Beat reported last month, Gabbard’s campaign is spending more than it is raising, and took in less money during the second quarter of the year than during the first.
According to Real Clear Politics, polling data show Gabbard averaging 1.2% support, far behind Harris, former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
I’ll give Gabbard credit: She’s a tireless campaigner, and she knows how to get media attention.
Still, it was five days after the telescope protests on Mauna Kea began before she finally issued a statement on the crisis in her own backyard.
She appears to have done so on her way to Puerto Rico, where she again made headlines calling for the resignation of the U.S. territory’s governor — even though Puerto Rican citizens can’t vote for the U.S. president in the general election.
The show of solidarity for Puerto Ricans garnered Gabbard more headlines. A Google search late Thursday for “Puerto Rico + Tulsi Gabbard” turned up about 300,000 results.
But a search for “Puerto Rico + Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” who also flew to Puerto Rico, turned up about 5,030,000 results.
Of course, it could be that Google is biased.
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