- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2020

A pair of Democratic senators are accusing Google of hosting ads for protective face masks amid a national shortage during the coronavirus pandemic, despite the internet company’s pledge to ban such ads.

They called on the federal government to take action against Google for abusive and fraudulent activity on its advertising platform because it didn’t stop the ads.

Google announced its ban March 10 as the coronavirus outbreak spread. But the advertising practice continued apace, according to the senators’ March 17 letter to the Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department.

“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,” wrote Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Mark Warner of Virginia. “Scrutinizing the targeting information that Google provides under the AdChoices program, it became clear that these ads were targeted to users specifically because they were browsing articles on COVID-19.”

They wrote that the FTC “must intervene” when consumers cannot rely on a company’s representations to the public. They also sent the letter to the Justice Department in hopes of spurring more enforcement activity given what Mr. Blumenthal and Mr. Warner described as the “FTC’s inaction.”

The FTC confirmed it received the letter but a representative said the commission had no additional comment.

Google did not respond to request for comment. Mr. Blumenthal and Mr. Warner said Google told them it would need to see a full “click string” showing everything the staffers clicked on leading to the ads to determine if any policy violations occurred.

Google has said it took steps to prioritize preventing coronavirus-related scams among other critical support work. On Sunday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai announced the company had “blocked hundreds of thousands of ads attempting to capitalize on the coronavirus pandemic” since January.

Mr. Pichai’s announcement cited the company’s decision to ban all ads for medical masks and respirators, which the two senators say is not working.

“When it comes to advertising on our platforms, we have strict policies to govern the types of ads we allow,” Mr. Pichai said. “This includes a sensitive events policy which prohibits advertising that may try to capitalize on tragic events such as a natural disaster, conflict or death.”

Mr. Pichai said the company had taken down misleading reviews and false information about health care locations posted on Google Maps. He said Google had similarly removed “thousands of videos related to dangerous or misleading coronavirus information” on YouTube.

Google began partnering with Facebook, Microsoft, Reddit and Twitter to fight bad information spreading about the coronavirus on their platforms this week.

• Ryan Lovelace can be reached at rlovelace@washingtontimes.com.

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