Google's Fix for Misleading Abortion Ads Is Weak and Ineffective

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In June, Google began implementing a new policy that required companies running ads with abortion-related keywords to explicitly state whether or not they provide abortion services and then added a disclosure directly on the ad to prevent crisis pregnancy centers from deceiving users. But it appears the policy still allows these dangerously misleading clinics to show up in search results without that clarifying disclosure.

When someone searches on Google using the term “abortion,” ads for clinics that have been certified by Google under this new policy will include the disclosure “Provides abortions” or “Does not provide abortions.” But the Guardian pointed out in a report on Monday that other tangential searches, such as “free pregnancy test” or “pregnancy symptoms, don’t show this disclosure under ads for the same clinics.

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The policy, which Google announced in May, applies to advertisers in the U.S., UK, and Ireland, and was rolled out on all Search ad formats, according to a blog post from the company. Google claimed that it went into effect in June.

The announcement for this new ad policy came shortly after it was revealed that Google had awarded about $150,000 to Catholic nonprofit Obria Group as part of the search giant’s Ad Grants program. The anti-abortion nonprofit’s stated mission is to target “abortion-minded women,” and Google effectively gave it the tools and products needed to amplify this mission and reach more people.

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Google’s new policy would ensure that ads for crisis pregnancy centers like Obria Group aren’t able to as easily mislead women seeking abortion services or information by immediately branding their ads with a helpful disclosure before they even have to navigate through their website or, more dangerously, seek their deceptive consultation. But if it only works when someone types “abortion” into the search bar, crisis pregnancy centers still have the power to show up for vulnerable users.

For instance, if someone isn’t positive they are pregnant, they are likely to search for pregnancy-related terms which might not include the term “abortion.” When Gizmodo searched for “abortion clinic New York”, the disclosures showed up beneath the ads. But when we searched for “pregnancy ultrasound New York,” there were no disclosures on the ads. When the Guardian used the term “abortion” in its search, a yourabortionchoice.org ad showed up with the disclosure that it does not provide abortions. A search for “free pregnancy test” also pulled up the same ad, but without the disclosure. The website is reportedly run by Heroic Media, which states that it wants to “save lives from abortion.”

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If a crisis pregnancy center shows up for these types of searches, women with an unplanned pregnancy might still be steered into a clinic that doesn’t provide abortion services and will lie to them in order to prevent them from seeking them.

“They are trying to locate and populate those searches so that in a face-to-face discussion they can try to convince a woman to not have an abortion, including through ultrasounds or providing false information about health and safety concerns,” Alice Huling, counsel at the Campaign for Accountability, told the Guardian, referring to crisis pregnancy centers and the fact that women might be searching for “generic” information around unplanned pregnancy options.

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We have reached out to Google for comment on what abortion-related keywords searches show the ad disclosure, and why all advertisers who applied and received certification under this new policy don’t always show the ad disclosure regardless of the search terms.

The latter would effectively solve what the Guardian characterized as a “loophole” in this system—if all ads for clinics and crisis pregnancy centers simply always feature the disclosure regarding whether they do or do not offer abortion services, then users would always be informed as to what their options are available to them. By narrowing these disclosures to only searches with the word “abortion” in them, Google’s new ad policy is a weak offense to preventing these misleading clinics from reaching their targets.

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Melanie Ehrenkranz

Reporter at Gizmodo

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