Online Ad Disclosure Bills Guard National Security, Sponsors Say

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By Kenneth P. Doyle

Bipartisan legislation introduced in the House and Senate Oct. 19 seeks to protect U.S. elections from foreign interference by increasing the transparency of online political ads, according to the bill’s sponsors.

Facebook Inc. and other internet platforms recently have acknowledged that online ads were used by Russia-linked sources to try to influence the 2016 presidential elections. Facebook said it discovered the Russia-linked ads after the election.

The ability of Russians or other foreigners to influence U.S. elections without being detected is a threat to U.S. national security, according to Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) an author of the Honest Ads Act, which seeks to increase transparency of online political messages. “Election security is national security,” Klobuchar said at a press conference announcing introduction of the new bill.

The Senate measure is co-sponsored by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

A House version of the Honest Ads Act also was introduced Oct. 19 by Reps. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) and Mike Coffman (R-Colo.). “Our bipartisan bill makes sure our laws are as up-to-date as the latest technology, and makes it harder for foreign actors to use the internet to attack our democracy,” Kilmer said in a statement introducing the measure.

Public File Requirement

According to a summary from Klobuchar’s office, a key provision of the legislation would set a new requirement for a “public file” of political ads to be published on internet platforms. The public file requirement would track a current disclosure requirement for political ads aired on TV and radio ads, which is administered by the Federal Communications Commission, but the new rules for internet platforms would be administered by the Federal Election Commission.

Klobuchar said the new requirement, like the current provision for broadcasters, would provide transparency for online ads targeting candidates or issues of “national legislative importance.” It would require reporting of an ad in the public file if the ad’s sponsor has bough political ads costing $500 or more over the preceding year.

The public file would have to include:

  •  a digital copy of each political ad sold;
  •  a description of the audience the ad targets;
  •  the average rate charged for the ad;
  •  the name of the candidate and office or legislative issue to which the ad refers; and
  •  the contact information of the purchaser.
The other main elements of the online ad transparency bill include an extension to online ads of “electioneering communications” reporting rules, which currently require reporting to the FEC of payments for targeted TV and radio ads referring to federal candidates.

In addition, the bill would include a requirement for reasonable efforts to determine whether online ads are being purchased by a foreign sponsor.

Bill Could Be Added to Security Measure

McCain didn’t appear with Klobuchar and Warner at the press conference announcing the Senate bill, but Klobuchar read a statement from him emphasizing the need to strengthen transparency laws in the wake of the Russian attack on American democracy. She also suggested McCain may support attaching the online ad disclosure legislation as an amendment to a future national security bill in the Senate.

McCain’s backing of the online ad transparency bill was seen as important not only because of his position heading the Armed Services Committee but also because of his past identification with campaign finance regulation and disclosure issues. Along with former Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), McCain co-authored the last major legislation to control campaign financing—the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, also known as the McCain-Feingold law.

While the legislative path to enacting the online ad disclosure bill remains unclear, the measure and the issues it addresses are expected to be aired at a Nov. 1 Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on the Russian-linked ads in the 2016 election.

Representatives of Facebook, Twitter Inc., and Google, a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., are expected to appear at the intelligence panel hearing. Warner said at the Oct. 19 Capitol Hill press conference that he expected these witnesses to be questioned about the companies’ positions on whether new laws are needed to increase transparency of online ads.

Representatives of the internet and social media companies were included in discussions before introduction of the new bill but haven’t yet said whether they would support its provisions, Warner said. He said, however, that these companies have all said they want to protect elections and democracy and suggested that user trust in them has been damaged by revelations that they provided a means for election interference.

“If they believe what they say, they should join us” in supporting transparency measures, Warner said of the companies.

`More Like Russia’

In the past, Google and Facebook have resisted requirements for disclaimers on their online ads, which would provide sponsorship information and say whether an ad is authorized by a candidate. This information has long been required under FEC rules for TV, radio and print ads.

In addition to the affected companies, other critics of campaign finance regulation have maintained that the FEC should be cautious about regulating political speech on the internet. The Center for Competitive Politics, a nonprofit that is critical of regulation, issued a statement Oct. 19 criticizing the new bill announced by Klobuchar, Warner and McCain and complaining that a full text of the bill hadn’t yet been released.

“Though purporting to regulate Russia, in fact this regulates Americans,” said Bradley Smith, the center’s chairman and a former Republican FEC commissioner. “By imposing more broad burdens on Americans’ speech rights rather than targeting foreign interests interfering with our elections, their bill would make America look a little bit more like Russia.”

In the same statement, Eric Wang, a CCP senior fellow, said that, rather than regulating online political ads, lawmakers should look at strengthening the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), “which is appropriately limited to the type of foreign political activity that Russia engaged in, and amending that law if necessary.”

Facebook Admission `Tip of Iceberg': Warner

Warner has been critical of Facebook, which he said was slow to reveal information that it uncovered about Russian-linked ads carried on its platform. He said at that Facebook has acknowledged selling $100,000 to $150,000 worth of ads paid for by Russia-linked sources, but this may be “the tip of the iceberg” in terms of how the platform was used.

Warner said that, so far, only those Facebook ads paid for in Russian rubles have been identified as problematic by the company. He suggested there may have been many more similar ads for which the sponsors sought to cover their tracks by using other currency.

Facebook has provided the ads in question to Congress but hasn’t released them publicly. Warner said he has seen the Facebook ads and suggested many would have triggered the provision in the new online ad legislation that would require internet platforms to “make reasonable efforts” to reject ads suspected of violating the long-standing prohibition against foreign spending to influence U.S. elections.

“The majority of the ads should have been reviewed by individuals,” rather than sold by Facebook through an automated process that avoids human review, Warner said.

Facebook has acknowledged that it sells many ads automatically, so ads aren’t necessarily reviewed by people before they are published online. After acknowledging that it sold Russia-linked ads, the company promised to improve its internal review process, including by hiring 1,000 new employees to review ads.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at kdoyle@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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