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Ocean activists: Google sinks free speech

An environmental group protesting a major cruise line’s sewage treatment methods accused Google of yanking its ads in order appease the company and cruise industry.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Online search engine leader Google has banned the ads of an environmental group protesting a major cruise line’s sewage treatment methods, casting a spotlight on the policies — and power — of the popular Web site’s lucrative marketing program.

Oceana, a 2½-year-old nonprofit group, said Google dropped the text-based ads displayed in shaded boxes along the right side of its Web page because they were critical of Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines.

Washington D.C.-based Oceana believes Royal Caribbean pollutes the oceans by improperly treating the sewage on its ships. It hoped to publicize its complaints by paying to have its ads appear when terms like “cruise vacation” and “cruise ship” were entered into Google’s search engine.

Company not named in ad
The ad, which said “Help us protect the world’s oceans,” appeared for two days last week before Google pulled it from its page.

When Oceana challenged the ban, Mountain View, Calif.-based Google responded with an e-mail advising the group that it doesn’t accept ads with “language that advocates against Royal Caribbean.”

Oceana’s ad didn’t mention Royal Caribbean directly, but the link directed Google visitors to a Web page critical of the Miami-based cruise line.

The decision stunned Oceana because it reeked of censorship and favoritism, said Andrew Sharpless, the group’s chief executive.

“We were surprised because the answer they gave certainly raises the question whether they got a phone call from Royal Caribbean,” Sharpless said Thursday. “We can’t prove that, but it certainly smells that way.”

In a statement, Sharpless added that "Google has no qualms running a series of ads promoting low fares and exotic getaways on Royal Caribbean's behalf. They also don't seem to have a problem running countless ads for pornography, but apparently cleaning up the oceans crosses their line."

"For this company to claim to promote freedom of expression and yet deny us the right to effectively advocate against pollution is blatant hypocrisy," he stated.

Google responds, Yahoo! weighs in too
Both Google and Royal Caribbean denied there was any pressure applied to remove the Oceana ad.

Google’s policy prohibits ads criticizing other groups or companies, said spokeswoman Cindy McCaffrey. “We do reserve the right to exercise editorial discretion when it comes to the advertising we accept on our site,” she said.

Google’s ad policies don’t affect the noncommercial results that the search engine delivers using a closely guarded formula.

Oceana’s ad probably would be accepted by Yahoo!, which operates a similar online marketing program through its Overture subsidiary. Overture accepts critical ads, as long as they aren’t obscene or libelous, said company spokeswoman Jennifer Stephens. “We see it as a freedom of speech issue,” she said.

The ads have become a big moneymaker for Google, providing the company with hundreds of millions of dollars to expand its operations and technology.

As a privately held company, Google doesn’t disclose its financial results, but its revenue last year is believed to have ranged between $700 million and $1 billion. The company is expected to go public later this year.