Google draws fire from Australian Sex Party over ad refusal

The Sex Party alleges Google hurts its chances in a July election by delaying running its AdWords advertisements

Google is facing two complaints filed in Australia and the US by the Australian Sex Party, an upstart political party that was denied running AdWords for a July political campaign until a day before the election.

The Sex Party alleges Google caused it to receive fewer votes and donations that it would have received if it could have used AdWords, which appear in Google search results and on Gmail, said Fiona Patten, president of the Sex Party.

Patten filed letters of complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) on Sept. 5 and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) on Sept. 6.

The DOJ complaint alleges Google violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by unlawfully interfering in a state election. The ACCC complaint alleges unlawful interference in violation of Australia's Competition and Consumer Act 2010.

Patten ran in a by-election for a seat in the federal state of Victoria, running in an inner city district in Melbourne. She came in third.

"The Melbourne electorate is the youngest electorate in Australia," said Patten, who had allocated an initial AU$3,000 to spend on AdWords. "Newspaper ads are not going to get to this electorate. It is important to have access to online advertising."

The Sex Party, launched in 2009, thought the refusal might have been related to its platform, which revolves around a range of hot-button issues, including the rights of sex workers, access to abortion services and legalization of marijuana for medical purposes. But that didn't appear to be the case, Patten said.

Most of its ads advocated positions such as "24-hour public transport," Patten said. "We weren't saying 'For great sex, click here'."

The Sex Party tried to buy AdWords on July 2. Google refused, saying the ads displayed a donation button, which was not allowed if an advertiser did not have tax-exempt status. Donation buttons are actually allowed by Google's rules for political parties, and all political parties in Australia do not have tax-exempt status although donations are tax deductible, Patten said.

Meanwhile, other political parties, including The Greens, Labour and Family First, were running AdWords advertisements soliciting donations, she said.

The Sex Party repeatedly contacted Google to point out the inconsistency in their policy, and at 3 p.m. on July 20, Google relented. The election was the next day.

"I think [running Google ads] could have had quite a substantial impact," Patten said. "Our members are young and very tech savvy. We were not able to promote our policies like our competitors."

The Sex Party did not place ads through the Yahoo Bing Network, run by Microsoft, Patten said. "I think we'd certainly say we will be considering those outlets in the lead up to the next election." A federal election will take place in Australia next year.

A Google spokesman said the company had been notified by The Sex Party of its complaint but that it could not comment. DOJ officials could not be immediately reached for comment. The ACCC does not confirm if it receives complaints and would only comment after there has been a decision to take action following an investigation, according to a spokesman.

Send news tips and comments to jeremy_kirk@idg.com

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