The effort to make online companies live by the same political advertising rules that radio and television stations face has cleared another hurdle in Washington. A bipartisan group of House members has introduced a version of the Honest Ads Act that they say would bring new transparency to online political ads. It is a companion to a Senate bill that was also introduced last month by a bipartisan group of lawmakers who have raised similar concerns about foreign election interference.
The Honest Ads Act (H.R. 2599) 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 also require digital platforms with at least 50 million monthly viewers to maintain a public file of all electioneering communications purchased by a person or group who spends more than $500 total on ads published on their platform. The file would contain a digital copy of the advertisement, a description of the audience the advertisement targets, the number of views generated, the dates and times of publication, the rates charged, and the contact information of the purchaser.
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 latest proposal would not touch the digital ads sold by radio, however. 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 backers have described 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.
According to multiple intelligence reports, Russia attempted to influence the 2016 presidential election by buying and placing political ads on online digital platforms. Honest Ads sponsors say the goal of their bill is to close “loopholes” in the law and make it clear to the public who is funding online ads and to inhibit foreign actors from purchasing them.
“Foreign interests shouldn’t be able to buy online ads to influence American elections – period,” said Rep. Derek Kilmer (R-WA). “This important, bipartisan legislation will ensure that our laws are up to date with the latest technology and make it harder for foreign actors to use the internet to attack our democracy.”
The legislation passed the House last year, but it stalled in the Senate. Efforts are underway in that chamber to try again. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) introduced companion legislation in March.
“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,” Klobuchar said.
The bills have 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. Evening the playing field with big tech is likely something that would go over well with a lot of people in radio and television. National Association of Broadcasters President Curtis LeGeyt said Tuesday that more regulation of the “behemoths” is needed.
“We're competing with everyone, yet, the regulations we operate under recognize a fairly antiquated reality, and certainly NAB thinks those rules of the road need to be modernized both locally and nationally,” LeGeyt told the NAB Show in Las Vegas.
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.