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Google Urged by US Lawmakers to Fix Misleading Abortion Ads

(Bloomberg) -- A pair of US lawmakers on Tuesday urged Google to do more to ensure that ads displayed alongside abortion-related searches indicate whether the service is actually offered.

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Alphabet Inc.’s Google introduced a policy in 2019 that requires those advertising alongside search queries related to abortion to be certified based on whether they provide the procedure. In a letter addressed to Alphabet Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai, Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, and Representative Elissa Slotkin, a Michigan Democrat, expressed concern that the search giant does not consistently apply those rules, which can lead users to crisis pregnancy centers -- non-medical organizations that encourage visitors to keep their pregnancies.

“As many states are increasingly narrowing the window between getting a positive pregnancy test and when you can terminate a pregnancy, every day counts,” the letter states.

The lawmakers cited a joint analysis by Bloomberg News and the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate, which found that ads displayed against Google searches such as “Planned Parenthood,” “Plan C pills” and “pregnancy help” didn’t carry labels that would indicate whether an advertiser was an abortion provider.

Read More: Google Is Still Failing to Label Many Ads From Anti-Abortion Centers

For years, anti-abortion organizations known as crisis pregnancy centers have paid to advertise alongside searches related to the procedure, confusing women in need of medical care, and drawing criticism from reproductive health advocates.

“We believe Google’s failure to apply disclaimer labels to these common searches appears to be a violation of your June 2019 policy,” the lawmakers wrote. “We urge you to take proactive action to rectify these and any additional issues surrounding misleading ads, and help ensure users receive search results that accurately address their queries and are relevant to their intentions.”

A Google spokesperson said that workers at the company “regularly review our policies and have made updates to our list of in-scope abortion queries as needed.” The company added that it has “clear and longstanding policies that govern abortion-related ads on our platforms, which we apply consistently to all advertisers.”

Google told Bloomberg in September that ads aimed at what the company considers to be more general queries — which may include the names of abortion providers that offer other services — do not show the labels.

Warner and Slotkin also raised concerns about research from the Tech Transparency Project, first reported by Bloomberg, that found over a dozen ads in which crisis pregnancy centers were correctly marked with the label “does not provide abortion,” yet the text of the ads suggested otherwise.

“Such deceptive advertising likely reduces the effectiveness of labels,” the lawmakers wrote.

The Google spokesperson said the company reviewed ads flagged by TTP and took down those that violated company policy.

Warner and Slotkin asked Google to disclose which search terms it deems to be related to getting an abortion and to share the measures it will take to root out ads that violate its policies against misrepresentation.

Google finds itself at the center of a political tug of war over how to handle ads placed by the crisis centers, which outnumber abortion clinics by 3-to-1 in the US, according to research from the University of Georgia College of Public Health.

Many democrats have urged the company to take more steps to limit the prevalence of such organizations in ads and search results, while some Republicans argue that the groups are being unfairly discriminated against.

(Adds comment from Google starting in paragraph 7)

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