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Tulsi Gabbard, Democratic Presidential Candidate, Sues Google


Representative Tulsi Gabbard, the long-shot presidential candidate from Hawaii, said in a federal lawsuit that Google infringed on her free speech when it briefly suspended her campaign’s advertising account after the first Democratic debate in June.

The lawsuit, filed on Thursday in a federal court in Los Angeles, is believed to be the first time a presidential candidate has sued a major technology firm.

In a twist that reflects Ms. Gabbard’s unorthodox political views, the claim that her speech was stifled by Google is similar to complaints made over the last year in Republican circles. Few — if any — Democrats have raised similar concerns.

Big tech companies like Google are getting increasing scrutiny by lawmakers and regulators around the world for a wide variety of issues, including their influence on political debate, their handling of consumer data, and the aggressive way they compete with smaller companies.

A day before the Gabbard lawsuit was filed, Facebook said the Federal Trade Commission had opened a formal antitrust investigation into its business practices. Earlier in the day, the F.T.C. announced that Facebook was fined a record $5 billion for deceiving users about their ability to control the privacy of their personal data.

Tulsi Now Inc., the campaign committee for Ms. Gabbard, said Google suspended the campaign’s advertising account for six hours on June 27 and June 28, obstructing its ability to raise money and spread her message to potential voters.

After the first Democratic debate, Ms. Gabbard was briefly the most searched-for candidate on Google. Her campaign wanted to capitalize on the attention she was receiving by buying ads that would have placed its website at the top of search results for her name.

The lawsuit also said the Gabbard campaign believed its emails were being placed in spam folders on Gmail at “a disproportionately high rate” when compared with emails from other Democratic candidates.

“Google’s arbitrary and capricious treatment of Gabbard’s campaign 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,” the lawsuit said.

Ms. Gabbard and her campaign are seeking an injunction against Google from further meddling in the election and damages of at least $50 million.

Google has automated systems that flag unusual activity on advertiser accounts — including large spending changes — to prevent fraud, said Jose Castaneda, a spokesman for the company.

“In this case, our system triggered a suspension and the account was reinstated shortly thereafter,” he said. “We are proud to offer ad products that help campaigns connect directly with voters, and we do so without bias toward any party or political ideology.”

No other campaigns have publicly claimed that Google has suspended their advertising accounts.

Interest in Ms. Gabbard, who has served four terms in the House and is an Army National Guard veteran, spiked after the debate. She entered the presidential race as a relative unknown and is still polling at less than 1 percent, according to New York Times polling averages.

But her appeal has crossed traditional party lines. She has drawn support from both the right and the left because of a staunch antiwar message. She has also received favorable coverage from influential conservative news media like Drudge Report, Fox News and Breitbart.

Ms. Gabbard’s campaign is historic even in a race with many potential firsts. She was elected to the Hawaii House of Representatives when she was 21, becoming the youngest woman to join a United States state legislature. When she was elected as representative for Hawaii in 2012, she was the first Somoan-American and first Hindu member of Congress.

Her political views are unusual among Democratic candidates. She has a history of making anti-gay statements and worked for an anti-gay advocacy group run by her father. (She has since apologized and said her past views were wrong.)

And she has tapped into increasingly bipartisan passion: wariness of big tech. The lawsuit filed Thursday said Ms. Gabbard had joined Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is also vying to be the Democratic Party nominee, in calling for large tech companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon to be broken up.

“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,” Ms. 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.”

While assertions of tech firms tipping the scales against political opponents are largely unproven, the lawsuit taps into concern that tech companies aren’t transparent about how decisions are made and they aren’t held accountable when things go wrong.

Last week, senators homed in on Google in a subcommittee hearing about censorship in search. The hearing aired many largely unproven claims that Google tilts search results against conservative viewpoints.

“Google’s control over what people hear, read, watch and see is unprecedented,” said Senator Ted Cruz, the Republican from Texas who led the subcommittee. “With that market power, Google can and often does control our discourse.”

Gabbard campaign workers sent an email to a Google representative on June 27 at 9:30 p.m. once they realized the account had been suspended. In emails reviewed by The New York Times, the campaign sent Google a screenshot of a notice of suspension for “problems with billing information or violations of our advertising policies.”

The account was reactivated at 3:30 a.m. on June 28. In the email announcing that it had reinstated the account, Google wrote that the company temporarily suspended the campaign’s account to verify billing information and policy compliance, but offered no other explanation for what had happened.

The campaign said it had opened the Google advertising account in February and had bought ads on Google search before the suspension. It said there was no problem with its billing information and that it had not violated Google’s terms of service.

“To this day, Google has not provided a straight answer — let alone a credible one — as to why Tulsi’s political speech was silenced when millions of people wanted to hear from her,” the lawsuit said.

Without the ads, the Tulsi 2020 website, which has links for donations and information about the goals of her candidacy, appears in the first page of search results for “Tulsi Gabbard.” But it is below stories and videos about her — selected by a Google algorithm — and after her Wikipedia page, her Twitter profile and her congressional website.

Roughly half of the candidates who participated in the first Democratic debates have bought ads to appear at the top of search results for their names.

With the exception of Senator Bernie Sanders, who is one of the leaders in fund-raising among the Democrats, the candidates buying Google search ads are polling in the low single digits, suggesting that the ads are more important to candidates with less name recognition.

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