One of the biggest anti-abortion campaigns in Ireland has accused Google of being "socially irresponsible" after the tech giant made the decision to ban all referendum-related advertising ahead of a vote this Friday on whether to legalise abortion.
The Eighth Amendment of the constitution gives unborn children the same right to life as the mother, making abortion illegal. The referendum will ask the Irish public if they wish to repeal the amendment.
"The issue is that we have one of the largest companies in the world, and the most powerful, saying, 'We think there is a threat to the integrity of the electoral process in a Western democratic state,' and then refusing to specify what that threat is," John McGuirk, communications director of the Save the 8th, told BuzzFeed News on Wednesday.
Since the referendum was called, there has been widespread concern about foreign interference in online campaigning, particularly on the anti-abortion side. The Irish government has said there is little they can do to police the origin of online advertising.
Prior to Google's decision to ban online referendum adverts, Facebook also announced that it would take measures to crack down on foreign interference in the campaign by banning ads from anyone outside of Ireland.
Neither company has released data that shows there was a significant surge in advertising from non-Irish groups, although the Irish edition of the Times and BuzzFeed News have uncovered several examples.
"To use language that BuzzFeed readers use, that is not a 'socially responsible corporate citizen'," McGuirk continued.
"That is a socially irresponsible corporate citizen who is making a very serious claim and presumably has data to back it up, and they won’t share it with the authorities or the government or the media or anyone in the democracy."
Following Facebook's announcement of its foreign ad ban, a spokesperson for the social network in Ireland told BuzzFeed News that the company did not have data that would identify a prospective advertiser's location. Facebook has since rolled out a verification tool that would require an advertiser to confirm they are in Ireland before the ad is accepted, although they have not yet released any data on the number of ads that have been rejected on these grounds.
McGuirk said he believed the real reason Facebook and Google had taken these measures was because they do not want to be held accountable if the public does not vote to legalise abortion on Friday.
"I think they are very concerned following the Trump story in the US and the Brexit story in the UK; they’re very concerned there will be a No vote and they’ll get the blame," he said.
On Thursday, Brexit advocate Nigel Farage directly credited Facebook for its role in the Leave campaign's victory in the UK's EU referendum in 2016.
"They banned it because Together for Yes were not spending online and they didn’t have the resources to spend online and they were concerned they were being outspent," McGuirk continued.
While Together for Yes had expressed concerns of not being able to match the No side's online advertising budget, they later raised over 500,000 euros through a crowdfunding campaign, some of which they said they planned to spend online.
Data collected from the Transparent Referendum Initiative using the Who Targets Me tool shows a large amount of paid-for advertising from the Yes side, as well as from No campaigns.
Nonetheless, Together for Yes welcomed both Facebook and Google's ad bans, saying the playing field had been levelled.
"There was a reason Together for Yes were throwing a party the next
day," McGuirk added.
"It’s because they viewed it, just as everyone watching this campaign
viewed it, that this was much worse for us than it was for them."