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Democrats preparing bill to regulate political ads on Facebook

by Noah Kulwin
Oct 4 2017, 10:35am

Senate Democrats are preparing a bill that would require internet services such as Facebook and Google to disclose political ad spending, much like the rules that govern television, radio, and newspapers.

The bill co-authored by Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar and Virginia’s Mark Warner is currently being hammered out in the Senate would require internet companies with more that a certain number of users to create “public inspection files” that disclose political spending on their platforms. It would also expand the authority of the Federal Election Commission to offer those files for inspection and levy stiff fines for companies that don’t comply.

The new regulations would be similar to those that govern TV and radio broadcasters, which report political spending to the Federal Communications Commission.

“A digital ad platform public inspection file would be an important step forward in addressing the problem of undisclosed paid political ads on the internet,” said Ann Ravel, a former FEC commissioner who resigned earlier this year, citing the agency’s inability to effectively regulate ads.

READ: No one is tracking the illegal ads on your Facebook feed

The legislation will likely take on a new importance for Democrats in Congress, as investigators have reportedly now learned that undisclosed Facebook ads linked to Russian accounts during the election were targeting voters in swing states Wisconsin and Michigan, which were both won in 2016 by small margins by President Trump.

The bill is the product of a month of behind-the-scenes work that began when Facebook first disclosed it had found ads linked to Russian accounts on its network. A congressional Democratic aide familiar with the bill told VICE News that while it was initially planned to be made public on Thursday, it will probably arrive after next week’s congressional recess. In the unlikely event that it gets through a Republican-controlled Congress, it would be the most significant new regulation of online political ads since 2006, when the FEC issued disclaimer requirements for those ads.

The core of the bill is to require digital platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to publicly list all political spending on their advertising networks, or pay substantial fines. Should Congress pass the bill, the FEC would then get to decide on the size and scope of the fines.

Klobuchar and Warner first signaled this in a letter to their colleagues last moth asking them to co-sponsor the legislation, and they’ve been working out the details since then, according to the aide, who adds one of the discussion points is the exact minimum user count for platforms before they have to start keeping inspection files. But the new rules would certainly include the internet’s biggest players like Facebook, Instagram, Google, Twitter, Snapchat, and others.

It would represent a significant change for Google and Facebook, which now control 63 percent of all advertising dollars spent online, according to research firm eMarketer. In addition, the two firms account for most of the growth in advertising, and each year they shift dollars away from TV, radio, and newspapers, where political ad spending is public, to online, where it isn’t.

Sen. Klobuchar’s office declined to comment, and a representative for Sen. Warner did not respond to a request for comment.

Democratic lawmakers have been furious with Silicon Valley over what they describe as the tech industry’s foot-dragging when it comes to disclosing Russian government activity on their platforms. The House and Senate Intelligence Committees both plan to hold public hearings with representatives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter in coming weeks, and Warner recently excoriated Twitter for its “disappointing” testimony behind closed doors.

But Silicon Valley hasn’t been frozen out completely. In crafting the bill, “we have been in contact with some tech companies during the drafting process,” another aide working on the bill told VICE News.

Google and Facebook did not respond to a request for comment, and a representative for Twitter pointed VICE News to a previous statement in which the company says, “We welcome the opportunity to work with the FEC and leaders in Congress to review and strengthen guidelines for political advertising on social media.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently announced his company would be adding 1,000 staffers to monitor ads purchased on its platform. Ravel says these changes, and the Democratic bill, would be significant but insufficient.

She notes that in the unlikely event that the Democrat-sponsored bill advances in the House or Senate, the regulation of paid ads won’t stop misinformation campaigns or private political spending on Facebook seeking to influence U.S. politics.

“The ads that the platforms are paid to place are a small fraction of ads that masquerade as private commentary but which are in fact political communications that cost money to produce and to boost viewership on the platforms,” Ravel said. “Until those ads are also disclosed, the ‘Wild, Wild West’ of political digital advertising will continue to undermine the integrity of our electoral process.”

Lawmakers’ next scheduled update is a Wednesday noon press conference, at which Sen. Warner and his Republican counterpart on the Senate Intel Committee, Richard Burr, will provide an “update” on their Russia investigation and Silicon Valley’s testimony.

Alex Thompson contributed reporting.

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