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Congress Wants Digital Platforms Follow Same Political Ad Rules As Radio.

There is a fresh effort in Washington to bring an end to the political disadvantage that radio, television, and print advertisements have against online political ads. Despite failing to gain traction during the two previous sessions of Congress, a group of bipartisan lawmakers has reintroduced the Honest Ads Act that would require online political advertisements to adhere to the same disclaimer requirements as radio, TV, and print. The group says the legislation would also bolster election security by closing loopholes that allow foreign individuals or entities to fund political advertisements on digital platforms.

“By ensuring online political advertisements meet the same disclaimer requirements as television, radio, and print advertisements, this legislation would bring much-needed transparency to our campaign finance system and help prevent foreign interference in our elections,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Chair of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration. “For our democracy to work, we need strong rules in place so the American people know who is behind the political advertising they see online.”

The Honest Ads Act (S. 486) would update the definition of public communication and electioneering communication currently included in federal law to include paid internet and digital advertisements. In doing so, it would extend the current requirements for public access to broadcasting, cable, and satellite records of political ad sales to digital platforms and third-party advertising vendors.

The latest proposal would not touch the digital ads sold by radio. The bill explicitly creates an exemption for any online platform that is tied to a radio or TV station, newspaper, magazine, blog, publication, or other periodical. While the bill includes what sponsors describe as “targeted exemptions” for news organizations, it would require all qualifying large online platforms to accompany political ads with disclaimers identifying the purchasers of the ads.

Tech giants like Google and Facebook would also need to accompany political ads with disclaimers identifying the purchasers of the ads, similar to what radio and television stations are required by the Federal Communications Commission to do. The online platforms would also need to make “all reasonable efforts” to ensure that foreign individuals and entities are not purchasing political advertisements in order to influence Americans.

The bill’s sponsors point out that the Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that federal regulators on electioneering communications are constitutional. The Court reaffirmed that conclusion again in 2010 with an 8-1 decision.

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said no single bill will offer the comprehensive approach he believes is needed to harden the U.S. electoral infrastructure, but he calls the Honest Ads Act a good start. Graham says that he is especially concerned about the “gaps” that currently exist, particularly with social media. “Online platforms have made some progress but there is more to be done. Foreign interference in U.S. elections poses a direct threat to our democracy,” Graham said.

The Honest Ads Act was first introduced in Congress in 2017 following the online political ad shenanigans of the 2016 presidential campaign, including what federal law enforcement agencies concluded were influence campaigns targeting American voters that originated with overseas adversaries.

"In 2016 and again in 2020, we saw our adversaries launching disinformation campaigns exploiting social media in an attempt to influence our elections and advance their own interests,” said Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “In order to safeguard our elections, the United States needs to defend against these coordinated efforts to undermine our democracy,” he said.

Similar to the original bill, the latest Honest Ads proposal is primarily aimed at the biggest of tech platforms by only requiring disclosures from digital platforms with an average of 50 million unique monthly visitors or more. That has won the support of groups including the Campaign Legal Center, the Brennan Center for Justice, Issue One, End Citizens United, and the Digital Innovation Democracy Initiative.

The Honest Ads Act currently does not have a sponsor in the Republican-controlled House. And while early efforts to pass the bill have stalled during the past few years, online ads continue to grow in importance. According to studies from AdImpact and Borrell Associates, in 2020, an estimated $1.7 billion was spent on online political advertising, more than ten times the amount spent in 2012.

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