Yahoo! vs. Free Speech

Yahoo! vs. Free Speech

Yahoo! vs. Free Speech

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
April 25 2000 11:30 PM

Yahoo! vs. Free Speech

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Slate and the Industry Standard join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.  

If there's one thing the burgeoning political Web agrees on, it's that government regulation would be a terrible thing. But amid much hand-wringing about what the Federal Election Commission and the Federal Communications Commission might do, equally troubling private regulations have come into being unnoticed. Portals such as Yahoo!, MSN.com, AOL.com, and Lycos are already restricting online political debate in ways that few people even understand.

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Unlike their TV counterparts, Internet networks are not bound by FCC rules that ensure equal access by political candidates to the public airwaves. As Jacob Weisberg has pointed out, it's unlikely those rules can be applied to the Internet, and it is not clear that a version of the FCC's TV regulations would make sense in any case. But the absence of federal regulation gives private companies such as Internet portals tremendous license to control the way political candidates communicate online.

All the big portals have rules governing the types of banner ads that can run on their pages. Some portals have specific guidelines for political advertising. Those guidelines may be good-faith efforts to set ground rules. But in some cases, they have the effect of diminishing the quantity and quality of political expression online. Yahoo!, for example, has a blanket policy prohibiting negative banner ads. The Internet's most popular site will not let Prego run a banner ad criticizing Ragu for its tomato sauce, and it extends that rule to mean that George W. Bush cannot run a banner ad criticizing Al Gore's health-care plan.

Many of the rules relate to who can buy what. As Slate's Associate Publisher Cyrus Krohn explained in a previous "Net Election" column, one of the most attractive elements of online advertising is the ability of advertisers to target specific demographic and interest groups. One way to do this is to use search-engine keywords to prompt a banner ad. When Bush ran ads on Yahoo! earlier this month promoting his online tax calculator, users who typed the words "George Bush" into the portal's search engine were served the ad. But most portals (including MSN.com, the Microsoft network) allow only "positive" keywords to be associated with an ad. That means Bush could purchase "George Bush" or "tax cuts" for his ad, but not "Al Gore." Lycos allows candidates and companies to use competitors' names as keywords, but the competitor is first given the right to purchase those ad impressions himself. "If George W. Bush bought political ads and bought the keyword 'Al Gore,' Al Gore would have the right to buy those ads so that George Bush would be prevented from delivering them," Lycos spokesman Brian Payea said. AOL, by contrast, does not sell political keywords at all.

So far, such restrictions do not seem to bother the presidential campaigns, which have done very little online advertising in general. But the Yahoo! policy has already had a chilling effect on political speech. In February, Yahoo! quashed an advertising campaign by Respect at LAX, a multi-union coalition seeking to organize low-wage service workers and security guards at Los Angeles International Airport. Using a technique they called "virtual leafleting," the Respect at LAX campaign wanted to target the online clients of Gage Marketing Services, a subsidiary of AHL Services, the parent company that employs the low-wage workers at LAX. Just as leaflets might be distributed outside a bricks-and-mortar storefront, the unions wanted to distribute banner ads—"virtual leaflets"—on Yahoo! outside the virtual storefront of Gage Marketing Services. Keywords such as "AHL Services" or "Gage Marketing" prompted a banner ad that read, "Before you engage with Gage Marketing, click here." Users who clicked the ad were transported to a Web site maintained by Respect at LAX.

The unions paid Yahoo! $9,000 for a three-month campaign, but after three weeks Yahoo! refunded the money, saying the campaign had been improperly approved and that it violated the company's advertising policies. Yahoo! does not dispute the accuracy of the union's Web site.

Yahoo! would not comment on the implications of its negative advertising ban, but its guidelines prompt a number of head-scratching hypothetical scenarios. Could the Democratic National Committee not run ads for its tax calculator for millionaires, which criticizes Bush's ads as disingenuous? If Benetton runs banner ads derived from its death-penalty advertising campaign, are pro-death-penalty groups not allowed to respond? What about a banner ad that promotes an anti-candidate Web site such as NotHillary.com or gwbush.com? Would those ads be deemed "positive" (for the site) or "negative" (against the candidate)?

But while Yahoo!'s policy is both ambiguous and troubling, its most disturbing aspect is the fact that it's largely a secret. Some portals, including Lycos, post their advertising terms and conditions for all to see. Others (including MSN.com) maintain separate political advertising policies but do not release them. While there may be nothing nefarious about such guidelines, keeping them hidden invites suspicion that portals are serving as gatekeepers and not gateways to the Internet. At the very least, viewers deserve to know why certain ads are being served onto their computer screens, and why others never will be.