Senate Democrats just unveiled a new bill to regulate political ads on Facebook and Google. The question is whether they can get any Republicans besides John McCain to sign on.
The long-awaited bill, dubbed the Honest Ads Act, would force disclosure requirements on the likes of Facebook, Google, and Twitter much like those that regulate television, radio, and print media. It was crafted in direct response to the revelation that Russian entities conducted a vast misinformation campaign across Facebook, YouTube, Google, Twitter and other networks in a bid to influence the 2016 election.
The Honest Ads Act would make online political advertising subject to the same rules as other media, and it would require digital platforms with “millions” of users to list what’s called a “public inspection file” — a repository of political ads and who purchased them that the FCC currently requires of broadcast TV networks.
If implemented, a mere $500 worth of advertising would require such a disclosure, platforms with “50 million or more unique monthly U.S. visitors and or users” would need to have a public inspection file, and both platforms and political candidates could be held liable for noncompliance. You can read the full bill embedded below.
The bill is being spearheaded by Sens. Mark Warner and Amy Klobuchar, of Virginia and Minnesota, respectively. Warner is vice chair of the Senate Intel Committee, which is currently investigating the Russian election meddling. Democratic aides told VICE News that they initially hoped to get Republicans to sign onto the effort and go public with it earlier in October. Sen. John McCain, at the time of the Thursday press conference, is the sole Republican who has signaled his support for the bill so far.
“In the wake of Russia’s attack on the 2016 election, it’s more important than ever to strengthen our defenses against foreign interference in our elections,” McCain said in a statement read aloud by Klobuchar, who added that “our laws have failed to keep up with evolving technology.”
The Federal Election Commission, long hobbled by partisan gridlock, has failed to create any substantial new rules to regulate political advertising online in over a decade. Former FEC Commissioner Ann Ravel resigned from the agency this past spring because of its failure to regulate U.S. elections. She told VICE News earlier this month that because political ads are “a small fraction” of political promotion online, the legislation doesn’t appear to be a complete fix to the problem of unmonitored political spending on the internet.
Behind the scenes, Silicon Valley has been flexing its political muscle to make sure that the bill isn’t too restrictive. Sen. Warner has repeatedly referred to the Honest Ads Act as “light-touch regulation,” and Facebook – where Russian agents purchased $100,000 worth of ads — has said it will be making “transparency” policy changes of its own, such as disclosing to whom political ads are shown.
“We stand with lawmakers in their effort to achieve transparency in political advertising,” Facebook U.S. policy vice president Erin Egan said in a statement responding to the Honest Ads Act. “We have already announced the steps Facebook will take on our own and we look forward to continuing the conversation with lawmakers as we work toward a legislative solution.”
A representative for Twitter did not respond to a request for comment, and a Google spokesperson told VICE News that “we support efforts to improve transparency, enhance disclosures, and reduce foreign abuse. We’re evaluating steps we can take on our own platforms and will work closely with lawmakers, the FEC, and the industry to explore the best solutions.”
A number of Republican senators floated by Democratic staffers as possible partners on the bill — Sens. James Lankford of Oklahoma, Mike Lee of Utah, and Steve Daines of Montana — either did not respond to requests for comment or said they had yet to see the bill. Lankford spokesman D.J. Jordan said that “the senator will be talking to his colleagues about this bill.”
Senators will get a crack at questioning Silicon Valley platforms further on Nov. 1, when representatives of Facebook, Google, and Twitter are set to publicly testify on Russian ad purchases on their platforms during the 2016 election. Sen. Warner, whose office has been working with all three companies over the past few months, took the opportunity on Thursday to plug the November hearing.
“Come to the hearing on Nov. 1. That’s going to be very important,” Sen. Warner said on Thursday.
You can read the full text of the bill below: