The intrepid Chris Soghoian has turned up an important wrinkle in Google’s services. Google pulled his AdWords ad pointing out AT&T’s campaign contributions to an Indiana politician after AT&T lodged a trademark complaint about it.
Trademark law is for preventing confusion about the source of goods and services. There is no possibility that Chris’ ad would confuse consumers in this way. He’s not providing telecommunications services, and his ad didn’t suggest it. Chris’ use of “AT&T” did not violate AT&T’s trademarks.
The subject matter of Chris’ ad is an important part of our national discourse, and something people should be able to run ads about on a platform like Google. It would be, well, evil, to kick small public policy advocates to the curb in favor of big corporations.
A company like Google is in a tough spot, of course, trying to adjudicate trademark claims at scale. But it is not acceptable to treat trademark complaints as proven just for having been submitted.
Google should take some steps to make its process more fair, such as by allowing advertisers to respond to a trademark complaint before Google acts on it. Much of the process could be automated, and it could explain to both sides what trademark rights include – and what they don’t. If after a few automated steps, the two remained at loggerheads, Google employees could take a look to see whether the claim or the response were meritorious. (A trained monkey could have determined that Chris’ ad is not a trademark violation.)
In close cases, Google should leave it to the parties to resolve, while it works in the courts to generate a substantive body of law that service providers in the position of Google are not properly liable for the trademark infringements of users. (My brief pitch for common law findings of “no liability” in such situations – as opposed to statutory protections like CDA section 230 – starts at minute 22 of this video.)
Would these ideas increase Google’s cost and potential liability? Yes, some. But Google should embrace those costs as it educates its users, employees, courts, and – most important – trademark holders about what trademark does and does not do.
Kudos to Chris for his tenacity. Google, fix this.