Belfast Telegraph

Irish premier ‘had no influence’ on tech companies over abortion ads ban

Facebook and Google have both restricted ads in the run-up to the referendum.

An Irish Government minister has rejected claims the Taoiseach lobbied Facebook and Google to restrict adverts related to the country’s abortion referendum.

Culture minister Josepha Madigan was responding to an allegation by independent parliamentarian and anti-abortion campaigner Mattie McGrath.

Google announced last week that it is to ban all adverts about the upcoming referendum on Ireland’s strict abortion laws.

The move by Google came a day after Facebook announced it would block foreign campaign material on its platform.

Posted by Facebook Ireland on Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Irish data protection commissioner Helen Dixon had previously raised concern that foreign actors could try to influence the referendum.

Anti-abortion campaigners have been angered by the moves, claiming they represent an attempt to stifle debate on the contentious issue.

Mr McGrath said rules on advertising during referenda campaigns should be set by the Irish parliament and should not be left to companies to make their own calls.

He then claimed Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had urged the corporations to act.

“The people can see what’s going on – they don’t trust the Government,” he told RTE’s The Week In Politics.

Minister Madigan, who also appeared on the programme, said she “absolutely” denied the claim.

“I’d like to see the evidence of that deputy McGrath – that is a really strong allegation to make,” she added.

“The corporations made these decisions quite rightly by themselves and we welcome them overall.”

On Friday May 25, Irish citizens will be asked whether they want to repeal the Eighth Amendment of Ireland’s Constitution, a provision that makes abortion illegal in all but exceptional circumstances.

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Campaign posters outside Government Buildings in Dublin (Niall Carson/PA)

They will vote on whether the contentious amendment, which gives the mother and unborn an equal right to life, should be replaced with wording that hands responsibility for setting the country’s abortion laws to politicians.

If the public votes to repeal, the Irish Government will table legislation that would permit women to legally abort within 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Mr Varadkar has set up a cross-departmental group to examine the issue of campaign adverts in a bid to protect the integrity of the electoral process going forward.

Outlining its rationale for the ban on Wednesday, a Google spokeswoman said: “Following our update around election integrity efforts globally, we have decided to pause all ads related to the Irish referendum on the Eighth Amendment.”

The technology giant’s ban will cover its Google and YouTube sites, and will stay in place until after the vote.

Explaining its decision to stop ads from foreign sources, Facebook said on Tuesday: “Our company approach is to build tools to increase transparency around political advertising so that people know who is paying for the ads they are seeing, and to ensure any organisation running a political ad is located in that country.”

Facebook had already introduced a view ads feature – which enables Irish users to see all ads any advertiser is running on Facebook in Ireland at the same time.

A spokesman for the Taoiseach later branded Mr McGrath’s claim “totally untrue”.

A Facebook Ireland spokeswoman also rejected any suggestion that political influence was a factor in the company’s decision.

“The decision to stop accepting referendum-related ads from organisations outside Ireland is not in response to lobbying from the Taoiseach or any politicians,” she said.

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