Clueless Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert can't get how Gmail ads work through his thick, thick skull

Rep Louie Gohmert (R-TX) is an ignoramus, as is demonstrated by his questioning during this hearing on reforms to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. Gohmert questions a Google rep about how Adwords in Gmail work. For the record, here's how it works: Google parses the email for keywords, checks to see if anyone has bid to have text-ads displayed on emails with those words, and displays ads that match. Here's how Gohmert thinks they work: A computer at Google reads your email, sends your identity to an advertiser, and asks it if it wants to display ads on your email.

Gohmert may have confused Adwords with some of the realtime auctions for display ads. Google rep very patiently, and repeatedly tries to explain this to Gohmert, who refuses to get it, and instead smugly keeps asking whether the government could buy the right to see who's sending what email from Google in the way he imagines (incorrectly) that advertisers do.

If watching the video is too painful, have no fear, TechDirt's Mike Masnick has thoughtfully transcribed some of the choicest moments:

Gohmert: Okay, so what would prevent the federal government from making a deal with Google, so they could also "Scroogle" people, and say "I want to know everyone who has ever used the term 'Benghazi'" or "I want everyone who's ever used... a certain term." Would you discriminate against the government, or would you allow the government to know about all emails that included those words?

Lawyer [confounded look] Uh... sir, I think those are apples and oranges. I think the disclosure of the identity...

Gohmert: I'm not asking for a fruit comparison. I'm just asking would you be willing to make that deal with the government? The same one you do with private advertisers, so that the government would know which emails are using which words.

Lawyer: Thank you, sir. I meant by that, that it isn't the same deal that's being suggested there.

Gohmert: But I'm asking specifically if the same type of deal could be made by the federal government? [some pointless rant about US government videos aired overseas that is completely irrelevant and which it wasn't worth transcribing] But if that same government will spend tens of thousands to do a commercial, they might, under some hare-brained idea like to do a deal to get all the email addresses that use certain words. Couldn't they make that same kind of deal that private advertisers do?

For the record, I think there are real privacy concerns with Gmail's ads, but not the dumbass ones that Gohmert is worried about. Also for the record, Gohmert believes that a trans-Alaskan pipeline will help caribou get more sex; denies climate change; and thinks that school shootings can be averted by giving school principals M-4 rifles.

Rep. Gohmert's Record For Stunning Technological Ignorance Is Broken By... Rep. Gohmert


  1. Wow.  Egregious, purposeful ignorance is so much more annoying than simple stupidity, isn’t it?

      1. If so, he’s been trolling us his whole political career.  He keeps up the act better than Colbert.  

  2. “I’m not asking for a fruit comparison.”

    I cannot wait to use that line next time someone says “apples and oranges” to me.

    1. I loved that too.  I think I’ll also develop a binder full of mildly tangential putdown / interference phrases that make me look smart, or at least quick, even if they’re meaningless and a waste of good oxygen.

      1. Be sure to use: “I’m nawt askin’ FER a fruit comparison”, the accent is important. What a grandstanding dumbass.

        1. I nominate “What a grandstanding dumbass.” as the new Christian-sensibility safe (er, sensibility-safe) “Christ, what an asshole”.

    2. That’s a shame congressman because I think it’s about all you could understand…

      With all your denial I suppose you know fruits…

      If you had the brain power to follow along you would know I did not make a fruit comparison…

      Why is every expert who testifies so calm and patient and afraid of being charged with contempt of congress?

      1. They’re both good at fixing problems around the house, but with elephants you only ever have to fix the problem once.

    3. Yeah, “fruit comparison” is pretty good. Who says democracy is broken?

      Once, a BB commenter, in process of administering me an EPIC BURN, tossed off some reference to “Guillaume’s much-abused shaving tool” because, y’know, I’d uttered the phrase “Occam’s razor.” I was duly impressed and vowed I’d use that someday.

      I’m also looking forward to saying:

      “I have no interest in grass-based golems.”
      “Your fixation on low-viscosity inclines is not my concern.”
      “Panhandling interrogatives are not at issue here.”

    4. Many years ago, I had a photocopied figure showing the near-identical results from HPLC analyses of apples and oranges. But I can’t find the image online …

  3. they din’t explain that the advertisers do not target users, they target Keywords. Like getting a speeding ticked does not disclose what your destination is.

    1.  I have to agree – the Google rep did not explain in a way that someone completely computer illiterate could understand.

      1. Agreed. I think he really didn’t just realize that the congressman didn’t understand the idea, but in that case he should have done his homework.

        He could have taken thirty seconds to explain it a lot more clearly, and then instead of saying “no we would not cut that deal with the government” say “no,you have a fundamental misunderstanding of how it works.”

        (The last part I gather is risky to say to a congressman, but if he had done the first part better it wouldn’t have been needed.)

        I don’t think the congressman was being fundamentally evil here — he honestly didn’t want the US government spying on its citizens. I think he would have appreciated understanding the issue more.

        Of course, what Google does with advertisers has nothing to do with what it could do for the government, so the Congressman’s point actually still stands (except for the notion of “cutting the same deal”).

        1. Since the Patriot Act gives them access to pretty much anything they want anyway with very few checks and balances I don’t see why he’s making such a big deal out of it.

          I think the problem here is that the idiot congressturd kept cutting off the Google rep to interject his question in an effort to keep pretending that he actually knows how these things work. The fruit comparison comment illustrates that he smugly presumes he knows how it works and thinks that the Google guy is trying to pull a fast one on him.

          PS: The only ad I see in gmail is the one line of text at the top of the email because it’s the only thing Adblock Plus can’t filter out. I used to accept the idea that in exchange for looking at some ads I can get the tasty content of teh interwebs but a small number of advertisers (I’m looking at you ‘shoot the target to win an iphone’ and ‘congratulations you are the Xth visitor’ retina-shredding flashing gif ad) eventually put me into the f-you advertisers camp and now ABP is the first thing I install on any phone or computer I use.

          Call me selfish if you want but one of my jobs is to *make* Adsense ads and I don’t see the internet advertising business model collapsing any time soon – The average user is too uninformed, uninterested or lazy to bother with getting rid of ads.

          1. I don’t notice them either, until I’m using someone else’s computer and I’m reminded how unsightly the internet is before cleaning it up with ABP.

            Your view:

            My view:

            Your view:

            My View:

            Nuff said?

        2. I think the congressman was being fundamentally evil. I think he wanted to make the (false) point that Google is selling your email address to people who are interested in advertising to people who include certain words in their emails, and it was important for him not to let Google make it clear that that is not how adwords works. That Google inserts ads in emails based on keywords scanned and what it sells isn’t the email addys that use the adword in question but the promise to insert the ad in those emails.

      2. Why couldn’t the Google rep say “Sure, we could cut the government the same deal we have with our advertisers, but since they don’t get anyone’s email address or the contents of their emails, the government would not get them either.”

        1. “So, what you’re saying is yes, you can get us the email history of everyone. Thank you.”

          Nope, there are very good reasons to avoid agreeing with someone and then putting exclusions afterwards.

          1. They don’t invite people to testify before Congress because they want to hear what they have to say; they invite them so that the members of Congress can make political gain by posturing on camera.

      3.  I am very uncomfortable with the idea that “someone completely computer illiterate” could sit on that committee.  It’s like handing the clicker to your great-grandfather, the one who fell on his head last year, twice.

        1.  Have you seen some of the mental giants that sit on the House Science Committee? I suggest you take Xanax before looking at THAT array of misfits.

        2. The clicker fell on great-grandfather’s head twice last year? Someone should tape it down someplace safe.

    2. I think it would have been more clear if he said “We broker the ad (find the match and present it). No personal information changes hands).”

    3. Somewhere there’s a Dilbert cartoon that speaks of installing an interface between engineers and customers/users.

  4. It’s a shame that so few lawmakers are technically literate about the subjects they’re legislating.

    1. They don’t need to be literate about the subjects, that is the job of the lobbyists.  All they need to keep track of is how much the lobbyist donates to their campaign, what time their 5 star luncheon is with them, and what kind of cushy job they can get them after they leave Congress.

  5. These are the representatives, the best amongst us. I don’t blame him for not knowing, but for pretending to understand. And when he used the word “simpletons” it kind of made me chuckle inside.
    In any case, we have the policy makers who are making decisions on some issues they know nothing about.

  6. Maybe it’s because I’m not from the US, but I couldn’t take anything anyone says with that accent seriously. We have similar accents in the UK, accents that simply make people sound dumb, even if they’re saying something profound.

    In this case he was just dumb, so a bad time to bring it up, but there are almost definitely a lot of very smart Texans.

    But commmoooon, he sounds like a drunk stroke victim.

    1. The general assertion in the US is that “A southern accent costs you 20 IQ points.”  Similar thing seems to work for Germans as well.

  7. The line about Benghazi is a twofer, because Gohmert is one of those guys who is absolutely convinced Obama is hiding something his terrorist buddies did there.

  8. So nobody has told this congressman about the secret closets in all the large telecoms where they scan all your email and listen in on all your conversations? He’s worried about google adwords?

  9. Does he also think the emails are hand delivered by little men, like the one that turns on the switch in the refrigerator?

  10. From the Google representative :

    “There is no human interaction”

    For the longest time Google claimed there is no human intervention in its search results :
    ” The selection and placement of stories on this page were determined automatically by a computer program. ”

    Finally, after multiple researchers noted Google returned results that favoured its own properties, and that it was impossible they were determined by a computer. After *YEARS* of claiming otherwise, Google now states it does indeed intervene on some searches. Which searches, and how ? It won’t say.

    I’ve posted this before on BoingBoing, and I’m posting it again. I really like this site and the people involved. I read and listen to virtually everything Cory and Mark produce. It is simple bizarre Doctorow keeps writing novels about Orwellian surveillance and lying to its people, but repeatedly thats’ what Google does. Google’s sole revenue source is to mine you. Full stop. I’m not saying other companies are saints, but Google needs to get off its high horse, and sites like BoingBoing need to stop putting it on a pedestal. Its a for profit business like any other massive business, and the point of it is to maximize its profit. It has been caught lying repeatedly about how it collects its data and what it does with it. But its free, so uh, who cares.

    The fundamental problem as I see it is the majority of sites are fed their users by Google’s excellent search engine. So they remiss to say anything against it. We can respect and admire Google, and still point out its faults. It is not a contradiction. 

    Lets all laugh at the old government man. Ha Ha. Who else is overseeing Google ? Who are the fools here ?

    1. Yes, Google’s services may warrant some serious oversight from people who understand the serious technology and privacy concerns, just as Cory indicated in his post.

      This Congressman is not one of those people.

      1. Perhaps some selective blindness on my part then. Thanks for the links. Great to see BoingBoing is equal opportunity in pointing out problems. 

    2. While I don’t believe that the folks at Google are saints, nothing in that article says that Google is hand-picking results. Only that they have an algorithm, and that they can tweak that algorithm at will.

      That line about “obvious changes,” for example: how do they decide what are the “obvious changes?” Well, that’s exactly the kind of stuff that Google does with its petabytes of information. Datamining is what it does best. If everyone goes to the first Google hit for a search term and then immediately backs out again within seconds, it would be stupid for the algorithm not to notice this and start to lower the ranking of that hit.

    3. Tweaking an algorithm to favor certain ads over others is not the same as selling your name and information to the companies which advertise via AdWords, which is what Gohmert was refusing to understand. Sure, it didn’t get explained as clearly as it could have, but Gohmert kept interrupting him and not letting him finish a thought because he thought himself a genius who already knew everything, which as he demonstrated, couldn’t have been further from the truth. 

    4. Nice rant, but you’re conflating two independent subjects. The quote refers to parsing emails for keywords and then matching ads to keywords in your emails. That process has no human interaction.

      Then you talk about search results (not ads being presented) having human influence and researchers who noted that Google allegedly ‘favours’ its own properties. The FTC recently ended an antitrust case against Google for that very issue because the commission “did find that Google sometimes favors its own products and services in search results. But commissioners said there was no proof the company violated U.S. antitrust laws or harmed consumers.”

      The bottom line is that Google can do whatever they want with their products. If users don’t like it they can choose a different service. No one is holding a gun to your head. The reason people return to Google is because their results are largely agreed to be the most relevant. If this changes then people will change their preferences.

      You then comment that Google admitted they intervened on some searches with the implication that it’s something nefarious. Google have previously stated that some search terms results have been manually altered, an example is when a few years ago a blatantly racist photoshop of Michelle Obama was being circulated. Google stepped in to stop those images from showing up under a search for ‘Michelle Obama’. The image was still findable with a few added search terms, so it’s not like they were censoring free speech. They were just reacting to trolls.

      Let me just help you with something you wrote there: “Free internet services comapnies* sole revenue source is to mine you.” Um, yeah.. that’s the price you pay for free services. If you really don’t like it then get an encrypted VPN – they’re surprisingly cheap.

      It has been caught lying repeatedly about how it collects its data and what it does with it.
      Links please.

      So they remiss to say anything against it.
      That’s bullshit. Prove that Google punishes any site for saying bad stuff against them. Google punishes one group of sites by blacklisting them: Sites that try to game their algorithm to artificially improve page rank. If what you are saying is true then this wouldn’t be the results for the term ‘microsoft scroogled’

      Yes.. Let’s laugh at the old man. It’s his job to represent his state in congress and he’s doing nothing to help the perception that Texans are sometimes a little backwards, brutish or slow. Who else are overseeing Google? Us, the FTC and anyone else who can mount a good argument for their anti-competitive behaviour. So far that’s been no one.

    5. “Who are the fools here ?”

      Well, Gohmert gets my vote. You get my vote.

      You can’t be serious. BoingBoing puts Google on a pedestal? I don’t think we read the same BoingBoing.

  11. His questions are like the age old “Are you ever going to stop beating your wife?” question– you can’t answer “yes” or “no” without looking bad.   “Yes” implies his misconceptions are correct, and “no” makes it sound like you are craven and anti-American.

  12. The district he represents was heavily gerrymandered (thanks to Tom Delay for that one – a gift that keeps on giving, for sure)

    from Wikipedia:

    The district was predominantly rural for much of its history, and thus was far friendlier to electing Democrats to Congress even as most of Texas swung toward the Republicans. The district’s four-term Democratic incumbent, Max Sandlin, was a particularly severe critic of the DeLay-led redistricting effort, claiming that lumping rural areas with urban ones stifled the voice of rural voters. Indeed, the 2003 redistricting made the district more urban and Republican, especially with the addition of the Republican strongholds of Tyler and Longview. Sandlin was heavily defeated in November 2004 by Republican Louie Gohmert, a longtime judge in the Tyler area. Gohmert is the first Republican to represent the district since Reconstruction.

    I can only dread the proposition of entering a court room to find this tool, in a robe, wielding a gavel.

    1.  “The district was predominantly rural for much of its history, and thus was far friendlier to electing Democrats” and “redistricting made the district more urban and Republican”
      Generally, more urban is more Democrat, not the way they say.

  13. Hello? The guy uses a Microsoft marketing word (scroogled) in his first sentence and promotes ideas Microsoft is trying to use in their advertising for the new Outlook to denigrate Google and make them appear less trustworthy than the big brother Microsoft. Can someone find out if he has been visited by lobbyists from Redmond?

      1. Why do folks assume that our corporations and politicians don’t exchange bags of cash for support?  Remember the congressman in New Orleans who used a rescue crew to ferry him to his house where he retreived $90,000 in cash from his freezer?  Do you think he was unique?  I always assume these guys, and their corporate sponsors are reporting about 1 dollar out of every hundred exchanged.

  14. I think it’s unfair to assume that the average legislator understands how keywords work.  The initial explanation the Google rep provided was good, but when Gohmert clearly misunderstood it, the Google rep was way too guarded in his further attempts to clarify.

    Not saying that Gohmert *isn’t* dumb as a post, but if this is all the evidence we have to go by, I’d reserve judgement.

    1. I think it’s unfair to assume that the average legislator understands how keywords work.

      There’s a big and important difference between “average legislator understanding ______” and “legislator who is unable and/or unwilling to understand basic facts about the ______ he is attempting to legislate.”

      1. Actually, there’s a solution for that problem, called a research staff. Congressman Bozo doesn’t even have to get his hands all booky, he can have his staff brief him verbally before he makes a statement.

      2.  Especially when it a legislator who is interested in computer privacy. Did he just become interested in it as he sat down?   Do a scrap of homework, Congressman, and you won’t look numb than a pounded thumb

  15. Proposition: create a website, completely nonpartisan, but totally nonmoron, and collect all the recorded lies and truly stupid comments by every federal policitian. Just to make access easy. Memories ain’t what they used to be in the Age of Interwebz

    1.  politifact?

      Well, obviously not all of them, turns out a small minority of them is still several full time jobs worth of commitment.

  16. To be honest, I have a difficult time figuring out how they work, too, because no one I know actually clicks on them, and yet Google makes billions of dollars a year from them.   

    1. It is enough simply to put the brand within your field of view. Click through is not necessary for success. you can be sure that the research has been done thousands of times.

      1. No one? I’ve clicked on at least three. When will they start putting giant QR codes on billboards for the texting and driving public to scan? Do I need to run off and patent the idea?

  17. “On two occasions I have been asked [by members of Parliament], “Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?” … I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.” —Charles Babbage, 1864

  18. I think that some of the people commenting on this story are under the mistaken belief that when a Congressman or Senator asks a question in a hearing, he or she is actually interested in the answer. Sometimes they are, but frequently the question is just grandstanding for the cameras and they’re only interested in the answer insofar as it gives them material for further grandstanding.

    1. ^^this. this is politicking, thus the multiple mentions of benghazi for the conservaspiricists.

      GOP congresspeople remind me of teddy ruxpin with the “stupid talking points” cassette.

    2. It’s like in reality shows, where someone is acting out to get more guaranteed airtime on the edited, broadcast version of the show.

  19. He’s asking questions that people want answered. It looks like you are attacking  the wrong guy. If people were given a chance to ask Google questions in a formal government atmosphere this is what we would see.

  20. He knows exactly what he is doing. Muddying the waters and making sure everyone sees him registering disgust at such behavior. He is speaking to our unconscious and knee-jerk safety mechanisms that force you to throw your hands up when something is flying at you before you consciously know what is happening. Many voters use that extinct alone to decide and those are his people.

  21. I think the congressman is embarrassingly unprepared for the session. He should have a researcher explain for him how the Google Adwords system works. It’s dangerous to be that factually ignorant and in a posisiton of responsibility.

    1. What corporation would sponsor a candidate who might rebel against his or her programming?

  22. I still say he is mimicking Microsoft marketing and knows full well that that is what he is doing. Demonizing and insisting over every objection.

  23. This was a perfect example of a smart-ass thinking about his next question instead of listening the the answer to his last question.  Gomer just wanted to make jokes, and get in his digs at Google, Obama, the gummint, and Huffington Post, and didn’t realize that he was making a fool of himself in the process.  Or should I say “a bigger fool”.  Every time he leaves the District of Columbia and returns to his home district, he raises the average I.Q. in both.

  24. It’s clear he is a little mixed up on how things work.  However, there is a grain of truth in his point.  With Gmail, it is actually the advertisers writing the queries against the emails, not Google.  Then, their ads could certainly place cookies on your computer and when you visit their site, they can identify their queries with you.  For example, they could choose to query emails for “marijuana” and then when you visit their site (possibly for unrelated reasons), they would know that you – the endpoint identified by the earlier cookie, are a customer who gets emails about marijuana.  They may even have identifying information about you from their site – maybe you buy things from them.  Name.  Address. 

    That’s how adwords work, and it really shouldn’t be laughed off too quickly.  A responsible policy would not allow third parties to track matches to keyword queries inside personal emails.

    (Brief description on writing queries: )

    1. I’m not sure that Google adsense does anything that sending targeted URLs via other advertisers that use keywords (most of them) cannot. It stands to reason that if companies buy adspace for certain keywords, then use a unique click-thru URL for each keyword then of course the page you end up visiting could keep a record of the fact that you, IP xx.xx.xx.xx, received an email that contains the word “marijuana”. This, by itself, is not terribly incriminating information, considering both proponents for and enemies of marijuana lagalisation would presumably have the word feature frequently in their inboxes.

      I agree it could be used to create a digital portrait of you.. I just dont think that digital portrait is very valuable, outside of its use to categorise you for marketing purposes. The other thing is this: Do you like the sound of the things being advertised to you? Then type the ad’s information into google yourself and don’t click the adsense links. That way you see the thing, teh googs doesnt get click-thru $ and the advertiser has no knowledge of you outside standard web tracking info (geo/system/referral info).

      The key lesson for everyone is to be educated and change the way you do things if you don’t agree with the status quo (which, for the record, I dont). Don’t get mad… get even (by making their data on you worthless).

  25. What puzzles me is that the guy from Google didn’t just use an example like

    “Say you sell lawn ornaments and want to target ads at Gmail users. You can then create a list of words that you would like to trigger an ad being displayed. If a user’s email contains a word from that list, Google’s program will be able to show the user your advertisement, assuming that the ad will be more interesting to the user in the context you have set. All without giving you any information about the users.”

    I hope I, myself, understood the process well enough and that my explanation was sufficient.

    Then again, Gohmert would have probably interrupted the G-man at some point and/or not been ready to listen and understand what he was being told anyway.

  26. /facepalm these are the people who represent us.  When all the “good” and “smart” people are used up in real jobs, we are left with the lowest common denominator in both morals and intelligence to legislate for us. Sigh.

  27. Texas was jealous of Michelle Bachmann, so we got our own. But this is Texas, where everything is bigger, so we turned the stupid up to 11 and got us a Louie Gohmert.

  28. Seems to me that the Google guy is avoiding the question with technical explanations. When in fact the question is “Can Google provide governments with information on what specific people are writing in their emails?” Google answers “Google doesn’t do that” but what’s to say they won’t do it someday?
    The congressman isn’t asking how adsense works, he’s just pointing out the kind of information Google has access to and how that makes him nervous.

    1.  Agreed. While everyone stomps on the Congressman with glee, I think they’re missing the point. Perhaps Google doesn’t provide your info directly to advertisers (or governments), but they’re completely capable of it. That doesn’t concern anyone?

      1. As does every single email provider or ISP.  I’d be much more scared of the minor players where admin practices are less systematic, than my pal Google.

        And, by the way, the goverment can potentially read all your emails anyway. Especially if you or the person you are mailing to are out of the country.

        It’s a little odd Gohmert should be so concerned about our privacy when he is first in line to take them away via the Patriot Act, FISA courts, et al.

    2. But the question is predicated on the idea that Google is already doing that for advertisers, and the correct answer to that is “Google doesn’t do that.” They would not be discriminating against the government by refusing to do it for them. They don’t do it for ANYBODY, and every email provider and ISP in the world has the capability, not just Google. And he Is asking how adsense works, in the sense that he thinks he already knows and is wrong about it, and is therefor asking a question that doesn’t make sense, so the Google guy is trying (and doing a bad job of it) to tell him that he’s got it wrong how adsense works.

  29. Look, Gohmert wants to be Senator.  There are 32 representatives just in Texas.  He has to distinguish himself somehow.  The distinction he’s gunning for is Most Ignorant.  He’s set a high bar, too: how’s he ever going to overtake Ted Cruz?

  30.  >Google rep very patiently, and repeatedly tries to explain this to Gohmert

    And doing a pretty shit job of it. It’s obvious the Google rep doesn’t deal with many non-tech people. You need someone that knows how to explain computers to my grandparents.

  31. Gohmert isn’t seeming to understand that Google doesn’t give the addresses to the people who advertise on Google any more than TV stations tell advertisers what addresses are watching a given show. They agree to show the ad to those people whose emails contain the applicable keywords just like TV stations agree to show the ads to people watching the applicable shows. It’s just like selling advertising on TV or radio, and just as impersonal.

  32. The really, really, REALLY sad part about this is that he actually beat out someone else for his job.

  33. I may be missing something here, but it seems to me he understands perfectly damn well. He’s just a bit of a smartass. Mind you, the lawyer is as well. The lawyer constantly uses vague wording to avoid answering the questions directly. Everything else aside, Gohmert has a pretty good grasp on things in this case from the looks of it.

  34. and this dumb fool will get votes and maybe even stay in Congress and continue his brain cramp

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