Three senators are putting pressure on internet giants like Facebook and Google to be more transparent about who is buying political ads on their sites in the wake of revelations that Russian-linked operatives placed ads on social media networks to sow division in the runup to the 2016 election.
On Thursday, Republican Sen. John McCain announced he is joining Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Mark Warner to co-sponsor the Honest Ads Act, which would require political ads sold on the internet to follow the same rules as ones sold on television, radio, and satellite networks, all of which have to disclose who is buying political advertising.
“In the wake of Russia’s attack on the 2016 election, it is more important than ever to strengthen our defenses against foreign interference in our elections,” McCain said in a statement. “Unfortunately, US laws requiring transparency in political campaigns have not kept pace with rapid advances in technology, allowing our adversaries to take advantage of these loopholes to deceive millions of American voters with impunity.”
The announcement is a response to Russia’s meddling in the last presidential election, senators said. It’s illegal for foreign entities to buy political ads in the US, but in the runup to the 2016 election, a Russian-backed “troll farm” purchased $100,000 worth of political ads on Facebook. The ads only came to light last month, when Facebook officials testified in front of Congress.
Russian meddling in the election is usually framed as an issue of national security: A foreign power was able to interfere with the election process in the US. But the legislation looks at it another way — through the lens of campaign finance. The 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, a campaign finance law sponsored by McCain and Sen. Russ Feingold, banned foreign actors from buying political ads in the United States. The Honest Ads Act would amend the law to include internet ads in those requirements.
“Political ads on the Internet are more popular now than ever,” Klobuchar wrote in an op-ed on the bill in the Washington Post. “But there is little transparency and accountability when it comes to disclosing information about these ads. And without transparency, there is no ability to know if foreign governments are purchasing the ads. This leaves our election system vulnerable to foreign influence.”
Campaign finance laws don’t apply online — so Russia could buy ads on Facebook and Google
The 2002 McCain-Feingold legislation was an attempt to inject transparency into political advertising, and part of a broader effort to cut down on attack ads. The law put limits on so-called “soft money,” how much political parties and interest groups could spend. But one of its most recognizable impacts was that political candidates had to provide a voiceover at the end of their ads, saying, “I am [insert candidate name here], and I approve this message.”
The ultimate goal was to give voters more information about the groups putting political ads on television, radio, and satellite networks.
But by the current law, internet companies don’t have to play by the same rules, because the law was written before the internet became the main way people communicate about politics. In 2006, the Federal Election Commission decided the internet could be exempt from these rules, after pressure from bloggers concerned about free speech.
In its decision,