A trio of top Senate lawmakers is commencing a new push today to regulate the Political Ads that appear on Facebook, Google and Twitter, as Congress seeks to thwart the Russian government from spreading disinformation ahead of another U.S. election.
The new bill is called the Honest Ads Act, and it’s the brainchild of Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Amy Klobuchar. In recent days, they’ve also enlisted critical Republican support from Sen. John McCain. And their measure, in short, would require tech giants for the first time to make copies of Political ads — and information about the audience those ads targeted — available for public inspection.
The proposal arrives as congressional lawmakers continue to probe the extent to which Russian-aligned sought to co-opt Facebook, Google and Twitter before and after the 2016 presidential race. Each one of those major online platforms already has found some evidence of the Kremlin’s meddling — and in many cases, Russian agents sought to sow social unrest through divisive, misleading advertisements that touched on racial and religions issues.
To that end, the new Senate bill — obtained by Recode before its official introduction on Thursday — seeks to impose new regulations on any website, web app, search engine, social network or ad network that has 50 million or more unique visitors or users annually.
For campaigns that seek to spend more than $500 on political ads every year, tech and ad platforms would have to make new data about their ads available for public viewing. That includes copies of ads, as well as information about the organizations that purchased it, the audiences the ads might have targeted and how much they cost.
The new online ad disclosure rules would cover everything from promoted tweets and sponsored content to search and display advertising — and it includes ads on behalf of a candidate as well as those focused on legislative issues of national importance, according to a copy of the bill. The language would appear to cover work in Congress and across the federal government on major debates like healthcare and taxes.
The proposed rules mirror some of the disclosure requirements that already apply to broadcasters, who must make copies of political ads run on their airwaves available for public viewing. In that vein, federal lawmakers also seek to ensure that political ads on Facebook, Google and Twitter must have clear and conspicuous disclaimers saying who purchased them. Tiny font isn’t enough, at least in the eyes of Warner and his allies.
And tech giants would lastly have to employ “reasonable efforts” to ensure that foreign governments and their agents — from Russia or elsewhere — are not purchasing political ads on their platforms.
Within the tech industry, the Honest Ads Act is likely to provoke a mixed response, as companies look to harden their platforms against misinformation while avoiding any new, onerous regulation. Facebook, for one, has has promised to hire roughly 1,000 new employees to review political ads before they appear on the site.
In many cases, though, the most problematic ads that ran on Facebook ahead of Election Day did not address either President Donald Trump or his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, in a direct way. Kremlin-tied profiles and pages focused on issues like immigration, Black Lives Matter and gun control, and it’s unclear how lawmakers’ new bill might apply to that content.
On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, the bill might struggle to advance. Not all federal lawmakers share Warner’s interest in Russia’s activities on social media, while Republicans generally have dismissed federal probes into the Kremlin’s activities during the 2016 presidential election. The addition of McCain as a co-sponsor, however, at least serves as an important first step in bringing more GOP backers on board.
Still, its introduction sets the stage for perhaps an awkward confrontation when Facebook, Google and Twitter dispatch their executives to testify at two hearings before the House and Senate Intelligence Committees on November 1. Warner is the top Democrat on the Senate’s panel.
Facebook plans to send Colin Stretch to the hearing, the company confirmed on Thursday. From Twitter, it’ll be acting General Counsel Sean Edgett making the trip to Washington, D.C., a spokeswoman said. Google declined to comment.
Watch the press conference, slated to begin at 12:40 p.m. ET, here:
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