Tulsi Gabbard sues Google over censorship claims

Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardNative American advocates question 2020 Democrats' commitment The US can't seem to live without Afghanistan 2020 Democrats release joint statement ahead of Trump's New Hampshire rally MORE (D-Hawaii), a 2020 presidential contender, is suing Google over claims that the tech behemoth violated her right to "free speech."

In a federal complaint filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, Gabbard alleged Google censored her presidential campaign when it suspended their advertising account for several hours last month. 

A Google spokeswoman pushed back on Gabbard's claims in a statement to The Hill, attributing the brief suspension to sudden "large spending changes" that set off Google's automated systems.

"We have automated systems that flag unusual activity on all advertiser accounts – including large spending changes – in order to prevent fraud and protect our customers," the spokeswoman said.

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"In this case, our system triggered a suspension and the account was reinstated shortly thereafter."

Gabbard's lawsuit marks the first time a presidential contender has sued a large technology company over such claims.

The Hawaii Democrat's principal campaign committee, Tulsi Now Inc., is suing Google, accusing it of violating her First Amendment rights along with a litany of violations under California law.

"With this lawsuit, Tulsi seeks to stop Google from further intermeddling in the 2020 United States Presidential Election," the complaint reads.

Gabbard's lawsuit reflects a narrative typically espoused by Republicans, many of whom have spent years claiming that the top tech companies in the world routinely censor their perspectives. President TrumpDonald John TrumpO'Rourke: Trump driving global, U.S. economy into recession Manchin: Trump has 'golden opportunity' on gun reforms Objections to Trump's new immigration rule wildly exaggerated MORE has long accused the companies of discriminating against himself and other Republicans, and last month held a "social media summit" dedicated explicitly to the issue. 

Few Democrats have gotten behind the charges, mostly passing them off as a conservative talking point and pointing out there is little evidence beyond individual anecdotes to substantiate the claims.

In a statement, Gabbard's campaign pointed out that the suspension of her advertising account came shortly after the first debate last month, during which Gabbard was one of the most-searched Democrats.

"In the hours following the 1st debate, while millions of Americans searched for info about Tulsi, Google suspended her search ad account w/o explanation," the campaign said. "It is vital to our democracy that big tech companies can’t affect the outcome of elections."

Gabbard, a long-shot candidate who regularly polls around 1 percent, has long staked out positions that put her at odds with most of the Democratic party. 

The complaint also alleges that Google did not offer adequate explanations for her advertising account's suspension during the hours between June 27 and 28.

"For hours, as millions of Americans searched Google for information about Tulsi, and as Tulsi was trying, through Google, to speak to them, her Google Ads account was arbitrarily and forcibly taken offline," it reads. "Throughout this period, the Campaign worked frantically to gather more information about the suspension." 

"In response, the Campaign got opacity and an inconsistent series of answers from Google," it states. 

Gabbard is seeking $50 million in damages.

The lawsuit comes as Google is facing intensifying scrutiny from Capitol Hill and federal regulators over potential antitrust concerns. The Department of Justice earlier this week announced it has launched an investigation into companies that dominate various digital markets, including online search. Google holds about 92 percent of the world's search engine market share. 

Lawmakers and experts have been raising concerns over Big Tech's role in the upcoming elections after trolls and foreign actors manipulated the top platforms to spread misinformation during the 2016 presidential election.

— Updated at 2:08 p.m.