Democratic presidential hopeful Tulsi Gabbard has filed suit in California against Google over claims that the company briefly suspended her campaign’s ability to buy ads during critical post-debate hours. With this lawsuit, it seems, Gabbard hopes to buy herself more attention than Google Ads could ever sell her.
Gabbard, a four-term Hawaii congresswoman, saw her search popularity spike following the first night of the Democratic debates—though that burst of Tusli enthusiasm did not hold. In the days following the June 27 debate, her search popularity soon sunk below that of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, and Pete Buttigieg, all of whom have stayed ahead of her in conventional polls. Maybe potential voters didn’t connect with her message or were put off by her well-documented homophobic comments.
The Gabbard campaign’s alleged inability to buy ads on Google for an estimated six hours may not have helped either, though the suit does very little by way of offering proof:
First, Google claimed that the Account was suspended because it somehow violated Google’s terms of service. (It didn’t.) Later, Google changed its story. Then it changed its story again. Eventually, after several hours of bizarre and conflicting explanations while the suspension dragged on, Google suddenly reversed course completely and reinstated the Account. To this day, Google has not provided a straight answer—let alone a credible one—as to why Tulsi’s political speech was silenced right precisely when millions of people wanted to hear from her.
Besides failing to state what Google’s “story” was in these instances, and asserting that campaign emails from Gabbard’s staff are sent to Gmail’s spam folders “at a disproportionately high rate” with no hard numbers to back it up, the suit makes the extraordinary claim that, beyond failing in its business obligations, Google intentionally tipped the scales against a candidate polling around 1 percent. “Google (or someone at Google) didn’t want Americans to hear Tulsi Gabbard’s speech,” it states, “so it silenced her.”
That the lawsuit also refers to Gabbard in its opening paragraph as “a candidate millions of Americans want to hear from” does little to counter the impression that it’s frivolous attention-grab. It’s also highly unlikely to win on any count. Suing private social media companies over perceived First Amendment violations is, besides being a fundamental misunderstanding of the Constitution, a page right out of the far-right playbook. Leaning as well on the Unruh Civil Rights Act—an anti-discrimination law on the books in California, where most of these companies are headquartered—and attempting to apply it to political beliefs is the exact same strategy deployed by professional troll Chuck Johnson and white supremacist Jared Taylor after both were kicked off Twitter. (Neither was successful in court.)
Gabbard is additionally trying to hit Google for breach of contract, but a quick perusal of that contract, as New York Times reporter Kate Conger points out, shows her campaign may have agreed to arbitrate any such disputes out of court. Google Ads’ Terms of Service do stipulate a 30-day opt-out period, and we’ve reached out to Gabbard to learn if her campaign exercised this right.
Following news of the lawsuit, Gabbard’s search popularity eclipsed frontrunner Joe Biden.