Google, YouTube are major players in presidential campaigns

SAN FRANCISCO -- Does Google want to be the 51st state this election season? It sure looks that way. The Mountain View, Calif.-based search-engine giant and its wildly popular video-sharing site, YouTube, can't be missed if you want to be president.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Does Google want to be the 51st state this election season?

It sure looks that way.

The Mountain View, Calif.-based search-engine giant and its wildly popular video-sharing site, YouTube, can't be missed if you want to be president.

The company's embrace of the 2008 campaign includes urging candidates to post videos on YouTube and buy ads on Google, and candidates stopping in to be grilled by employees at the Googleplex and giving exclusive YouTube interviews. And next month, Google/YouTube will take another step into presidential politics, co-sponsoring a presidential debate.

As Google positions itself as a virtual election headquarters for 2008, the question becomes whether one of America's most successful companies can balance its professed civic aims with corporate profits.


It's Google, of course, so it wants both.

Google officials insist their primary goal is to boost voter engagement as it extends its already-dominant brand, while candidates and political observers say it's a worthy pursuit.

Still, questions are coming from some corners about whether a powerful high-tech company is the best platform for promoting political activity. Also, there are calls for more clarity on how YouTube treats controversial political videos after one such video was mysteriously taken down and then re-posted aftercomplaints.

Nor do many believe that Google's participation is solely altruistic.

Josh Bernoff, an Internet analyst who covers social media, noted Google's slogan, "Don't Be Evil." "They do it because it's a positive thing and they have a corporate image to protect," he said.

The company's civic outreach is designed to reinforce its corporate activity, he added. "They would like to be a leader in every category. 2008 is about finding ways to use the Internet more effectively, and they'll be the beneficiary of it."

There's a lot of money at stake. Campaign spending in the 2008 presidential election could reach a record $1 billion.

Some 21 million Americans have watched an online political video, a Pew Internet & American Life Project survey shows. And while TV still reigns, campaign dollars spent on the Internet are expected to far surpass the estimated $12 million presidential aspirants spent online in 2004.


Google, which bought YouTube for $1.65 billion last fall, generates most of its $10 billion in annual revenue when advertisers buy ads connected to search terms and other sponsored links. As demand for keywords such as "Clinton" or "Giuliani" increases, the price the advertiser pays for a click on the ad goes up.

Candidates are eager to enter this marketplace.

Consider that 17 declared presidential candidates of the two major parties, encouraged by a YouTube project dubbed YouChoose, have posted more than 900 of their own videos -- Iowa dinners, flattering post-debate spin. There's no accurate count of the thousands of election-related videos generated by consumers.

In May, YouTube said it would begin placing ads next to its most popular video clips, and share revenue with the creators.

"This is not primarily about business," said Bob Boorstin, Google's director of corporate and policy communications, who said the company wants citizens to become more informed about politics. The company likens its role to media outlets that cover campaigns and sell ads to some of the people it covers.

"There is a natural tension in any company that does those things," Boorstin said. "We try to maintain a fire wall between the two."

But image and branding is very much part of the equation.

In fact, Boorstin said one of the goals behind YouTube's co-sponsorship with CNN of an upcoming Democratic debate and a later one for Republicans, is to "get a more serious side of YouTube shown."


There have been a few instances that have prompted calls for more transparency, including YouTube's April decision to remove an unflattering video of Republican candidate John McCain. Vague federal digital copyright law and unclear corporate policies about when complaints warrant a video removal have led some free speech advocates to question if controversial videos are being taken down for legitimate reasons.

The video, believed to be shot with a cell phone at a campaign stop showing McCain at a South Carolina stop singing "Bomb Iran" to the tune of the Beach Boys song "Barbara Ann," mysteriously disappeared from YouTube. It was re-posted after protests from users and the liberal activist group, which was planning an anti-McCain campaign around the video.

YouTube would only say at the time that it had been "mistakenly removed."

Steve Grove, YouTube news and elections editor, would not elaborate in a recent interview. But he defended the site as revolutionizing tired campaign sloganeering by encouraging "much more authentic political dialogue" than the old top-down model of a 30-second TV ad.

Even so, Ben Smith, a senior writer for the politics Web site Politico, said, "The criticism has been that they are too fast to respond with a reaction to immediately remove the stuff" when hit with a complaint.

"The cup is 99 percent full," Smith added. "But there is the 1 percent. At this point, it's a quite secretive process."

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