Google abandons antiabortion-ad policy after U.K. legal battle

The company now allows such ads globally.

Published September 18, 2008 9:00PM (EDT)

So the United Kingdom has this law -- let's call it the Equality Act of 2006 -- that prevents "discrimination on goods and services on the grounds of religion and belief." That means that if you're a company -- say, Google -- you can't deny advertisers on your site just because you don't agree with them on a particular "philosophical belief" -- say, abortion.

Previously, Google had not allowed "pro-life" ads on its site. (I like to call the folks behind those ads as being antiabortion. But they'd probably call me pro-abortion, when I prefer the term pro-choice, but such are the oddities of nomenclature.) So if the U.K.-based Christian Institute wanted to buy a "pro-life" ad next to the search result for "abortion" or "abortion help," it wouldn't be able to. That is, until now.

But because the U.K. has this law, the Christian Institute took legal action against Google. The two parties just settled out of court, and starting today, reports the Times of London, Google will be allowing antiabortion ads, not just in the U.K. but globally as well.

In related news, Google (plus Microsoft and Yahoo) are pulling ads off their search-engines result in India that hawk cheap (and illegal) DIY and genetic techniques to find out an unborn baby's gender. In India, disclosing the gender of a child before it is born is illegal, as most Indians prefer to bear sons rather than daughters, according to Agence France-Presse. Sabu George, an Indian activist, had petitioned the court to force the search giants to filter out their advertisements from the Indian search results.

What's weird about these two cases is that in the U.K. version, it wasn't that Google couldn't filter out British search results for abortion and then not serve up those ads, it's that it couldn't be bothered to do so. Most likely, it figured that a similar case could be argued in American or other courts and that it was just easier to allow these new ads as well.

Had this case gone further, Google could have shown indignation in having a British court tell it how to operate, when its servers are in the U.S. and the company is incorporated stateside as well. Yahoo made the same argument before a French court in 2000, after it was found to be selling Nazi medals and paraphernalia on its auction site. The French court found Yahoo guilty, despite Yahoo's claims initially that it wasn't possible to filter out French search results. Yahoo countersued (despite pulling the goods off its site) in American courts, saying that the French courts didn't have jurisdiction. After an initial win, the case was overturned on appeal, with Yahoo losing.

With that as a precedent, it appears that these days, search companies are all too ready to comply with local laws -- whether it be in the U.K., India or, in more malicious cases, China. But I still don't understand why there appear to be these discrepancies in action. In the U.K. case, Google allowed for antiabortion ads on a global scale, even when it could have allowed them for just the U.K., as was the case in India. I've got an e-mail pending with John Battelle, author of "The Search," to see what he thinks.

In other unrelated news, an update on the Palin e-mail hacking story: The hackers says it was easy, and better yet, it wasn't real hacking at all.

Wired's Kim Zetter reports:

Bloggers have connected the handle of the poster, "Rubico," to an e-mail address, and tentatively identified the owner as a college student in Tennessee.

Threat Level was unable to reach the student by phone because his number is unlisted. A person who identified himself as the student's father, when reached at home, said he could not talk about the matter and would have no comment. The father is a Democratic state representative in Tennessee. Threat Level is not identifying them by name because authorities have not identified any suspects in the case, and the link to the student so far is tenuous.

As detailed in the postings, the Palin hack didn't require any real skill. Instead, the hacker simply reset Palin's password using her birthdate, ZIP code and information about where she met her spouse -- the security question on her Yahoo account, which was answered (Wasilla High) by a simple Google search.

By Cyrus Farivar

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