Facebook, Twitter, Google and other large Silicon Valley companies that accept political ads could face a host of new regulations, if a bipartisan bill unveiled Thursday becomes law.
The Honest Ads Act, introduced by Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), Mark Warner (D-Virginia) and John McCain (R-Arizona), would impose new rules on digital platforms with at least 50,000,000 monthly viewers. Among other requirements, the measure would obligate those companies to maintain publicly available copies of political ads purchased by groups spending more than a total of $500. The companies also would have to maintain public records about the target audience, number of views, rates charged, and dates and times of publication.
The bill would also task large platforms with making "reasonable efforts" to ensure that foreign operatives don't purchase online ads. The ads themselves would have to carry "clear and conspicuous" disclosures.
The lawmakers' move was clearly heavily influenced by recent revelations about the Kremlin's involvement in the 2016 presidential election. Facebook said last month that accounts connected to Russia purchased around 3,000 political ads for $100,000 between June of 2015 and May of 2017.
Facebook users were not the only ones targeted by Russian operatives. Twitter said recently that it found 200 accounts connected to the ones identified by Facebook. Google also may have run at least $50,000 worth of ads connected to Russia, according to Recode.
"Our democracy is at risk," Klobuchar said today at a press conference. "Russia attacked our election. They and other foreign interests will continue to divide our country if we don't act now."
She added that the current laws regarding for political advertising haven't kept up with technology. "Our laws should be as sophisticated as those who are trying to manipulate us," she said.
It's worth noting that even if the bill passes, it won't necessarily hinder foreign governents from influencing elections through organic posts on social media. Consider what happened last year with the Twitter account @Ten_GOP, which claimed to be an unofficial account of Tennessee Republicans, but was actually operated by Internet Research Agency, a Russia-backed group. The Daily Beastreported last night that the account was retweeted by Brad Parscale, the Trump campaign’s digital director, Donald Trump Jr., and campaign manager Kellyanne Conway. (The campaign officials may not have known at the time that the account was connected to Russia.)
Still, some advocacy groups praised the bill. "This is bold and sorely needed disclosure legislation by a powerful Senate team capable of seeing it through," Public Ciziten stated.
Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, called the measure a good start, but said more is needed. For instance, he said, lawmakers should address ad targeting by political campaigns. Details about ad targeting in the last election are still emerging, but at least some political ads appear to have been targeted in suprising ways.
"We think there need to be safeguards to prevent political campaigns from accessing commercial data without opt-in consent," Chester said.
Free Press Policy Counsel Gaurav Laroia added that the bill could help guard against "the abuse of social media and other online platforms."
"The bill represents the tip of a very large iceberg as new media gatekeepers like Facebook, Google and Twitter come under much-needed scrutiny for their role in our economy and our society," Laroia stated.