The Interactive Advertising Bureau will testify this week that it supports efforts to strengthen disclosure requirements for online ads that expressly advocate for particular candidates. But the group will also warn lawmakers that tightening those rules won't necessarily affect the spread of "fake news" online.
"Enhancing the existing framework by clarifying the responsibility of publishers, platforms, and advertisers in making available these disclosures to the public would create greater legal certainty across the industry and provide valuable information," IAB CEO and President Randall Rothenberg plans to tell Congress in a prepared statement. "But the 'fake news' and 'fake ads' at the center of the current storm did not engage in such overt candidate support. So they were not, and based on current Supreme Court jurisprudence will not, be regulated under the Federal Election Campaign Act."
Rothenberg will testify Tuesday before the House Oversight subcommittee on information technology, which is slated to hold a hearing about online political ads. David Chavern, CEO of News Media Alliance, will also testify Tuesday, as well as representatives from the Center for Competitive Politics, and the Brennan Center for Justice, among others.
The hearing was announced late last week, shortly after Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), Mark Warner (D-Virginia) and John McCain (R-Arizona) introduced The Honest Ads Act, which aims to subject large web companies to the same disclosure rules as broadcasters. Earlier this month, the Federal Election Commission invited public comments about whether online ads should be required to include the same disclaimers as TV and newspaper ads.
Much of the activity on Capitol Hill stems from 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. Twitter found 200 accounts connected to the ones identified by Facebook, while Google reportedly may have run at least $50,000 worth of ads connected to Russia.
In addition to paid placements, many of the Russian-backed ads appear to have spread organically. For instance, the Twitter account @Ten_GOP, which claimed to be an unofficial account of Tennessee Republicans, was actually operated by Russian-backed group Internet Research Agency. That account reportedly 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 that the account was connected to Russia.)
The current rules require some disclaimers on certain types of online ads, but not to the same extent as ads on TV. For instance, in 2010, the Federal Election Commission ruled that Google can run pay-per-click political ads without including disclaimers in the copy, provided that the text displays the URL of the sponsor's site, and that the landing page has a disclaimer.
Rothenberg says the IAB supports "modernizing, clarifying, and reconciling any contradictions in these rules ... to require click-through, hover over, and similar types of disclosure," when ads overtly support political candidates.
But, he adds, many of the "ads" and "fake news," in the recent election didn't explicitly support a candidate.
"There were not a bunch of secretive Russian moles purchasing 'Vote for Trump' banner ads on carefully chosen web sites, nor pseudonymous Kazakh cells buying 'Hillary for President' pre-rolls on digital video platforms," he will tell lawmakers. "Rather, there were sophisticated posts about social and political issues, some of which were made more widely available because the operators paid for their posts to be more prominently featured in peoples’ social media feeds."
He also plans to say that free speech principles may limit the government's attempt to regulate that type of material. "Robust political speech -- no matter who is paying for it, no matter how controversial it is, no matter who may be offering it -- is the essence of American democracy, and must not be stifled," his testimony states.
At the same time, he will tell lawmakers that the industry can impose tough standards through its self-regulatory program. "We can monitor the financing chain, whether the paid support takes the form of conventional advertising, or whether it shows up in more contemporary or unfamiliar forms and formats, such as native advertising and branded content," his testimony states. "Our industry standards can be tough, encompassing speech that may be legally permitted, but nonetheless offensive to common-sense norms. Our disclosure mechanisms can follow the money closely and carefully and attack the problem at its roots."