A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Thursday unveiled a bill to make it harder for Russia to secretly interfere with future U.S. elections, by forcing social media companies to disclose the buyers of online political ads.
The measure from Sens. Amy Klobuchar, (D-Minn.), Mark Warner (D-Va.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Reps. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) and Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), would expand political ad disclosure rules beyond print, radio, and television to the internet. It would include not only material that is explicitly an advertisement, but also other forms of online paid content like so-called sponsored posts.
If the bill becomes law, the major online platforms like Facebook and Google — and any site with 50 million or more U.S. monthly unique visitors — would be required to attach what the lawmakers call “clear and conspicuous” disclosures like the”‘Paid for by Candidate Smith” that appear on ads in other mediums.
More than that, though, the bill would make the tech companies keep records of anyone who even attempted to purchase a political ad, as long as the ad buys total $500 in any one year. Those records, which the sites would have to maintain for four years, would include not just copies of the ads themselves, but specifics on how they played out online, such as how many people viewed them.
“We understand that election security is national security, and we know Russian threats to national security don’t always involve traditional weapons of war,” Klobuchar said at a news conference in the Capitol.
“Unfortunately, U.S. laws requiring transparency in political campaigns have not kept pace with rapid advances in technology, allowing our adversaries to take advantage of these loopholes to influence millions of American voters with impunity,” McCain said in a statement.
By detailing so explicitly how the new rules apply to the internet, the lawmakers are taking out of the hands of the FEC the role of interpreting how federal election law applies to the digital space. The commission has struggled with making those decisions in the past, leaving those judgments in the hands of the companies themselves.
McCain on Wednesday became the first Republican to sign on to the Senate bill, providing Klobuchar and Warner with a shot of GOP support for the proposal. Dubbed the Honest Ads Act, it’s an offshoot of the investigations into Russia’s use of Facebook, Twitter and Google to influence the 2016 election.
Facebook has provided congressional investigators with 3,000 Russian-linked ads, many of which sought to sow social and racial discord, that ran on the social network during the campaign season. Twitter has also shared data, and Google reportedly discovered Russian-linked ads on its own platforms.
The Klobuchar-Warner-McCain bill is just one of the issues confronting the tech companies as they prepare to testify at a Nov. 1 hearing on how Russia used their platforms to interfere in the election. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg spent several days on a damage-control mission in Washington last week, meeting with lawmakers of both parties looking at the social network’s broader role in the spread of propaganda and misinformation.
Federal election law predates the rise of social media and doesn’t directly address whether disclaimers are required on online advertisements. Back in 2011, Google and Facebook were among those that went to the FEC seeking clarity. Google asked the agency to sign off on the search giant letting users click through political ads to get more details on who was behind them, and the regulators agreed.
Facebook went a step further. It asked for a blanket exemption, arguing in part that, much like campaign pins or candidate-sponsored pens, its ads were too small to comfortably hold details on who paid for them. The commission deadlocked, though, on a party-line vote, leaving Facebook since to interpret the law as it saw fit.
But the glare of the Russia investigations has renewed attention to the issue, and earlier this month, to the surprise of FEC watchers, the commission opted to reopen consideration of how to handle social media ads. The slow-moving commission, though, is unlikely to reach a conclusion before the 2018 election, if at all.
Google and Facebook, along with their trade groups, sought to put an early mark on the proposed legislation, meeting with House and Senate staffers to convey steps they’re already taking to police themselves on political ads. A Hill aide said the companies did not try to stop the legislation outright but explain how regulation was likely to affect their businesses.
Warner said Thursday he hopes tech companies will work with lawmakers on the ad-disclosure bill and predicted more senators, including Republicans, will join as co-sponsors after the Nov. 1 hearing. Klobuchar said she aims to get the measure passed by the 2018 mid-term elections.
Steven Overly contributed to this report.