Google ‘preferred partnerships,’ embeds move digital ads deeper into politics

Last March, the American Action Network, a dark money organization associated with House Speaker Paul Ryan, announced it had entered into a “preferred partnership” with Google. Its sister super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, also signed the deal.

“We are thrilled to partner with AAN and CLF once again for the next two years,” Google’s head of conservative advertising, Lee Dunn, said in a press release.

The Mountain View-based web giant would provide the organizations with enhanced polling data, analytical support, and a discount on YouTube advertising for its promotion of the Republican political agenda and the party’s congressional candidates.

“We look forward to helping CLF win elections in 2018,” Dunn said.

Barely a month later, Dunn had switched jobs, becoming the head of White House Outreach for the online giant. According to her LinkedIn profile, she was working to “engage [the] Administration on issues such as digital taxation, global trade, digital commerce and copyright/trademark law.”

Although Google isn’t the only digital business rushing to exploit the opaque $1.4 billion political-ad industry, Dunn’s new job — and the partnership between Google and the two conservative organizations — illustrate the industry’s ability to use connections formed as advertisers to leverage relationships in the nation’s capital.

“This is a really concerning phenomenon that is new and unique to this digital advertising space,” said Brendan Fischer, a lawyer at the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C. “These companies are building relationships with legislators and positioning themselves to be able to influence legislators, and these same legislators are going to be regulating Facebook and Google in a lot of areas. So that means the interests of candidates and these digital platforms are aligned in a way that may be contrary to the interests of the public as a whole.”

‘Ideation sessions’

An October article published in the journal Political Communication found that digital advertising platforms had developed partisan advertising teams to work with clients on both sides of the aisle. These teams operated like political consultants during the 2016 presidential primary process. In one case, Google held “ideation sessions” with members of Sen. Rand Paul’s unsuccessful GOP campaign at its headquarters. During the general election, the companies embedded team members in the campaigns.

According to the article, online industry representatives said “the growth of their work in electoral politics was driven by the desire for direct revenues from their services and products, for candidates to give their services and platforms greater public visibility, and to establish relationships with legislators.”

Google is working in similar ways with outside spending organizations such as AAN and CLF. In a job description…

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