Warner, Blumenthal: Google Ads still monetize COVID-19 fears

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Google has claimed that it has banned ads that capitalize on COVID-19 fears, but the search giant is continuing to run ads that exploit fear for profit, according to Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

In a letter to the FTC, the senators slammed Google’s inattention to the misuse of its advertising platform and urged the FTC to intervene in order to protect the public and the nation’s supply chains.

“Browsing in incognito mode across a range of different devices, our staffs were consistently served dozens of ads for protective masks and hand sanitizer – in each case while on a page related to COVID-19,” the senators wrote. “Scrutinizing the targeting information that Google provides pursuant to the AdChoices program, it became clear that these ads were targeted to users specifically because they were browsing articles on COVID-19. In other words, using browsing data that Google collects through its third-party web trackers, unscrupulous and predatory advertisers were able to directly target consumers browsing content on the outbreak in order to exploit their fear for profit.”

“Google has made repeated representations to consumers that its policies prohibit ads for products such as protective masks. Yet the company appears not to be taking even rudimentary steps to enforce that policy, such as easily automated and scalable actions like flagging ads with relevant terms in the outbound URL. These misrepresentations generate direct harm to consumers, exploiting their legitimate fears over the COVID-19 outbreak to over-charge them for products. They also create widespread social harms to our nation’s response to this crisis, such as by contributing to shortages of products essential to the health care workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 response,” they continued. “Consumers should be able to rely on representations regarding a company’s business practices – particularly in cases, such as this, where Google has acknowledged that offending ads pose harm to consumers. If consumers cannot rely on a company’s representations, then the FTC must intervene.”

Earlier this month, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that in light of the COVID-19 outbreak, it would need roughly 300 million N95 respirator masks – 270 million more masks than it currently has stockpiled. Due to this shortage, the U.S. Surgeon General urged the public to stop buying protective masks in order to ensure that health care workers have access to the resources they need to stay safe.

On March 10, after several outlets reported that Google was serving these ads despite a policy that prohibits content that capitalizes off sensitive events, Google stated that it would formally ban ads for protective facemasks.

However Google’s advertising platform continues to be exploited for fraudulent activity with these ads continuing to run, notably even on news articles reporting Google’s new policies.

In their letter, the senators also highlighted previous efforts to encourage the FTC to address Google’s inattention to abuse and expressed disappointment with the FTC’s inaction.

Story by Chris Graham


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