Sydney Morning Herald, February 1, 2011
GOOGLE has been accused of stifling free speech after it banned an ad attacking a paper manufacturer over its environmental record.
The Wilderness Society paid to have its ad on Google promoting a boycott against a paper manufacturer that uses wood sourced from Australian old growth forests.
When web users typed ''office paper'', ''office stationery'' or the brand names Australian Paper and Reflex into Google, a link to the Wilderness Society's website, Ethical Paper, would appear at the top of the search engine's listings.
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But after a complaint by the company at the centre of the boycott, Australian Paper, Google removed the ads saying that because the society did not own the trademark for the popular paper brand, Reflex, it could not use the name in its ads.
Google says it introduced the policy in 2002 to protect the intellectual copyright of advertisers.
But the Wilderness Society's Sydney campaigner Peter Cooper said Google's policy did not apply as his organisation was not trying to sell anything but rather to bring an issue to the public's attention.
''The internet is a very important place for debate in our society and an issue as important as this needs to discussed in a public forum and a policy such as this prevents that,'' he said.
The society's Google ads have since been replaced by one for an Australian Paper website defending its environmental policies. Turning the table on the society, the paper manufacturer has bought the search terms ''ethical paper'' in order to generate traffic to its site rather than the society's. However by yesterday afternoon the ads had disappeared from Google.
Freedom of speech campaigners said Google was using its muscle - more than 90 per cent of online searches in Australia are on Google - to prevent a balanced debate.
The president of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, Cameron Murphy, said Google's behaviour was similar to that of other internet businesses such as Amazon and PayPal which, in the wake of the diplomatic cables dump last year, cited violations of their terms of service to sever ties with WikiLeaks.
''I am concerned Google is allowing a trademark policy to prevent one side of the debate from being heard,'' Mr Murphy said.
Google said it encouraged disputing parties to settle the differences between themselves. ''Google is not an arbiter of these disputes,'' a spokeswoman said.