In 2014, Google gave about $6 million in free advertising to the Church of Scientology, an activist for the church has claimed. Few people noticed the move at the time: The information resurfaced a few days ago on Hacker News, a technology news aggregator, under a headline that said, “Scientology says it’s received $5.7M from Google in ad grants.”
That headline referred to a story from September 2014 by Tony Ortega, the independent journalist and former editor of the Village Voice. Ortega wrote:
At a $100 per person event held in the San Fernando Valley on September 6, about 500 Scientologists were told, among other things, that Google has approved advertising grants totaling $5.7 million for Scientology churches around the country.
Google was not able to comment when reached by Business Insider, due to staff being away on seasonal holidays.
A spokesperson for Scientology told us, “According to its website, Google works with more than 20,000 nonprofits in over 50 countries. Unlike Tony Ortega and others pushing this story, Google is not bigoted or prejudiced against any religion.”
It is likely that the free advertising came from the Google Ad Grant programme, which provides free advertising for non-profit organisations and charities. You can see more about Google’s ad programme for non-profits here and the criteria for eligibility here.
The Church of Scientology was officially recognised as a tax-exempt religion by the US IRS in 1993, in a controversial decision that came after a years-long campaign of personal attacks on IRS employees, according to The New York Times. Until then, American court rulings had dismissed the idea that Scientology was a real religion, citing ‘‘the commercial character of much of Scientology,” its ”virtually incomprehensible financial procedures” and its ”scripturally based hostility to taxation.”
Following the IRS decision, Google may have felt it was not appropriate to distinguish between one officially recognised church and another.
Ortega’s information came from a transcript of a video of a Scientology fundraising meeting in the San Fernando Valley. The speaker was Brandy Harrison, Scientology’s “Building Expansion Director Int.” She said:
In the Bay Area a representative of Google was introduced to Scientology and our 4th dynamic campaigns through the Stevens Creek Ideal Org. This representative connected us up with the department responsible for non-profit advertisements. And as a result, Google awarded us a $10,000-a-month grant for free online advertising.
But that’s not all because Google looked into the responses that we were getting from this advertisement, and they increased that grant to the Truth About Drugs and Way to Happiness campaigns, to $40,000 a month.
But that’s not all. The second man, now with established Google teams solely for the Church of Scientology, suggested that we might want to extend the same grants to some of our class v orgs around the world. We applied, and now today, every ideal org in the United States has $10,000 a month of free online advertising.
[Crowd: wild applause]
In fact, in total so far, we have had $5.7 million in Google grants already approved for our 4th dynamic campaigns in United States ideal orgs.
The $5.7 million claim ought to be taken with a pinch of salt. Former Scientologists say many claims the church makes about its size and success are hugely exaggerated. (For instance, the church has claimed it has about 8 million members but surveys suggest there only around 55,000 in the US.)
It is not the first time Scientology has taken advantage of policies that Google extends to all. In 2002, CNET reported that Google removed search result links to the website Xenu.net, which publishes news and criticism of the church. The takedown happened because the church made a Digital Millennium Copyright Act request, citing Xenu.net’s publication of its internal materials, which Scientology has copyright over.