James Roochove is a solicitor and Director of Astraea Linskills. He regularly advises MPs and political activists.
Dealing with internet trolls is bad enough, but imagine those trolls paying to access huge online audiences to trash your reputation.
Last month, my client Lee Anderson, MP for Ashfield, received an apology from Google in the High Court – thereby underlining that anyone, especially politicians, could find themselves in a similar position in the future.
It was a timely reminder of the problems surrounding internet advertising, a cause championed by the Money Saving Expert, Martin Lewis, for many years. This included his legal action against Facebook which was resolved in 2019. At that time Google put out a statement saying:
“Because we want the ads people see on Google to be useful and relevant, we take immediate action to prevent fake and inappropriate ads. We have a tool where anyone can report these ads and these complaints are reviewed manually by our team. In 2017, we removed 3.2 billion bad ads and we’re constantly updating our policies as we see new threats emerge.”
Despite this, Lee’s case raises further questions about internet advertising. Coincidently, his High Court appearance came only two days after the government launched a consultation about the matter.
Politicians can have a hard enough time online as it is, but having internet advertisers give a platform to those seeking to attack them with defamatory statements presents a whole new challenge to grapple with.
If the subject of an advert takes legal action, they must first establish who they are going to take action against. It is not impossible to find the person or company that placed an advert, but that doesn’t mean they are always a viable prospect for civil legal action, which can be expensive, particularly if your opponent is unable to pay damages or legal costs.
Imagine, for example, that a political activist places highly defamatory adverts about their local Conservative MP, reaching thousands of their constituents. While some political activists are well heeled, let’s assume for this example they are not, so have little to lose. The MP has a decision whether to spend thousands on legal action, with no prospect of recouping anything. It’s a daunting prospect.
But what about the company taking money to facilitate the advert in the first place?
Put simply, if a company like Google or Facebook are happy to display such statements, they should be prepared to take legal responsibility for them too. Sadly, this is something they continue to resist.
More traditional forms of advertising (i.e. newspapers) are clearly liable if they publish defamatory content. This might explain why newspaper advertising rarely, if ever, risks printing anything that could be defamatory. They know they could get sued, which in turn means they take care about what they advertise.
Lee’s case highlights that such diligence isn’t always guaranteed online. In his case, an advert containing the words ‘MP’ and ‘paedophile’ got through Google’s systems. How the word ‘paedophile’ in an advert does not ring any alarm bells is quite astonishing, let alone when it is used in conjunction with a Member of Parliament.
Google, despite its apology, maintains it is not liable for the advert.
The statement in Court also showed the view Google took when the matter was raised with them.
Granted, the company acknowledged that the advert should not have been displayed, and removed it when a complaint was made. But in practice that relies on someone constantly monitoring the internet for any content that might need to be removed, rather than being able to rely on the internet advertisers to police adverts effectively in the first place.
It remains a mystery to me how a company the size of Google cannot simply alert politicians if and when an advert about them is displayed. Every MP has a publicly accessible email address, why not notify them? Then, rather than receive a shock days, weeks or months later when they happen to see a defamatory advert, MPs could review adverts when they are first displayed and, if contentious, seek to have them taken down quickly before untold damage is done to their reputation.
Many internet advertisers pay special lip service to political adverts, notably after the Cambridge Analytica saga, yet here an advert that said “MP” and displayed the image of a Member of Parliament was not included in Google’s dedicated political adverts library. How many other political adverts slip through the net? How can politicians monitor adverts about themselves if the dedicated database isn’t rigorously maintained?
More worryingly, when Google was asked for information about the number of times the advert had been displayed, and where, it was not provided. Requests made under GDPR were not responded to.
As MPs grapple with the Online Safety Bill and how to try and police the internet more effectively, it is a no brainer to expect the highest possible standards for paid content. If Internet advertisers were clearly liable for each and every advert they accept money to display it would focus minds and practices for the benefit of everyone.