Online Political Ad Bill Could Burden Small Publishers, Experts Tell House Panel

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., left, and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., left, and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

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The Honest Ads Act comes after the Senate found that Russian groups purchased thousands of online ads during 2016 election

Law and media experts expressed reservations on a Senate bill that would require online publishers to disclose who paid for political advertisements on their sites.

Though broadcast, radio and print publications must share the sponsors of political advertisements run by their outlet, no such requirement exists for similar ads on the internet. The Honest Ads Act, introduced last week by Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Mark Warner, D-Va., would expand the Federal Election Campaign Act’s definition of “electioneering communication” to include paid political ads online.

The bill comes after a congressional investigation revealed that Russian groups purchased more than 3,000 political ads on Facebook, Google and Twitter in an effort to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.

Representatives from the law and media industries underscored the importance of transparency in online political advertising on Tuesday before the House Oversight Subcommittee on Information Technology. Disclosure requirements for a political ad should be relatively consistent regardless of the platform it’s purchased on, they said.

“The internet is only going to grow in its importance to politics,” said Ian Vandewalker, senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice, which supports the Honest Ads Act. “Failure to subject online ads to the same disclosure requirements as ads on other media will leave the public without key information about who is trying to influence them.”

However, Interactive Advertising Bureau President and CEO Randall Rothenberg raised concerns about a section of the bill that requires web platforms to keep a public registry of advertisers—in a machine-readable format—who have spent more than $500 cumulatively on online ads.

While this wouldn’t be an issue for large platforms like Facebook and Twitter, he argued it could place an undue burden on smaller publishers. Rosenberg also suggested that self-regulation by the platforms could make a larger impact than federal legislation.

Some panelists also expressed concern that the legislation could stifle free speech.

FECA already prohibits foreign nationals from making any contribution to any federal, state or local U.S. election, and provides the tools needed to combat interference by Russia or any other country, said Allen Dickerson, legal director of the Center for Competitive Politics. He also said the Honest Ads Act could infringe on citizens’ first amendment right to political free speech by tacking on additional compliance rules to small, cash-strapped grassroots campaigns.

Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., who co-sponsored the Honest Ads Act in the House, pushed back against Dickerson, pointing out that the proposed legislation mirrors regulations already backed by the courts.

“Requiring disclosure when someone purchases a radio or TV ad does not prohibit or inhibit free speech, nor does holding those purchases in a public file,” said Kilmer, who sat in on Tuesday’s hearing. “The Supreme Court has long recognized that commercial speech such as political advertisements is not subject to the same protections as a citizen’s comment to speak up in the public square.”

Twitter announced Tuesday that it would begin labeling political ads on its site and include text saying who sponsored the post. The company said it would also limit advertisers ability to target specific users and impose stronger penalties on those who don’t follow the new rules.