Senators Call For New Rules For 'Invasive' Online Political Ads

Fifteen Democratic senators are asking the Federal Election Commission to ensure that online political ads carry disclaimers stating who paid for them.

"The FEC must close loopholes that have allowed foreign adversaries to sow discord and misinform the American electorate," Senators Mark Warner (Virginia), Amy Klobuchar (Minnesota), Claire McCaskill (Missouri) and a dozen others wrote to the agency this week. "The lack of transparency of digital ads is a threat to our national security."

They argue that the internet has undergone profound shifts since 2006 -- the last time the FEC issued rules for online political ads. The FEC said 11 years ago that some online ads might require disclaimers, but didn't mandate disclaimers for all internet ads. Several years later, the FEC said in an advisory opinion that search ads on Google didn't need to carry disclaimers in the text, provided that the ad displayed the URL of the sponsor's site, and that the landing page had a disclaimer.

Last month, the FEC opened a proceeding to explore whether to issue new rules. The agency's move came at a time of increasing concern over Russian interference in the last election. Facebook said recently that Russian operatives created at least 3,000 ads that reached as many as 126 million Facebook users and 20 million additional Instagram users during the last election cycle. Google and Twitter have also identified ads and propaganda that were created by Russian agents during the last election.

Warner and the other senators tell the FEC that the environment is different now than in 2006 for several reasons. The first, according to the senators, is that people are consuming media more passively now than in the past. "As online activity has been increasingly mediated by a handful of social networks, apps, and content aggregators, passive consumption of information -- and advertising -- has become the norm for Americans online," the lawmakers write.

That type of lean-back consumption means that online ads are now more similar to ads on billboards or TV, according to Warner and the others.

They also call attention to the role of online tracking in political ads, arguing that web ads are "more 'invasive' than traditional media since they are often targeted based on a user’s search history, demographics, and other factors, with ads following users across the web based on their activity on completely unaffiliated sites."

In addition, the senators suggest that online ad targeting contributed to the spread of fake news ads during the last election cycle. "Social media platforms tout their ability to target portions of the electorate with direct, ephemeral advertisements -- visible only to the targeted individual users," the lawmakers write. "This lack of transparency online -- combined with the ability to granularly target users on the basis of collected user data -- has incentivized the use of contradictory, materially false, and racially inflammatory ads."

The lawmakers aren't the only ones to call the FEC's attention to online data mining. The privacy advocacy group Center for Digital Democracy specifically asked the agency to examine the ways in which political ad campaigns use profiling data.

"The use of classifying and predictive Big Data analytics and advanced advertising and marketing practices in political campaigns is now common, just as they are already routinely used with a high level of sophistication to target and influence consumers for commercial purposes," the CDD writes. "The practices have evolved so much that updating disclosure requirements alone is no longer sufficient to preserve the integrity of the electoral process."

The group is asking the FEC to hold hearings on how campaigns have drawn on Big Data, including how they used "highly personalized micro-targeting, which can be tailored to exacerbate voters' fears, concerns, and subconscious behavioral biases."

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