Senators seek a crackdown on Facebook and Google political ads

Key Points
  • Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Mark Warner announce a bill aiming to check foreign political ads on social media platforms.
  • The rules would largely affect companies like Facebook and Google.
  • Sen. John McCain has co-sponsored the bill, but it is unclear how many other Republicans will back it.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., left, and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., speak about online political ads and preventing foreign interference in U.S. elections, during a news conference, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Jacquelyn Martin | AP

Three senators began a bipartisan push Thursday to rein in social media political ads amid fears about Russian meddling in American elections.

Should the bill gain more bipartisan traction, it would mark one of the strongest efforts yet to check companies like Facebook and Google.

Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Mark Warner, D-Va., crafted the bill, called the "Honest Ads Act." Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., signed on as a co-sponsor.

The senators hope the bill will curb the reach of foreign-bought political ads during American elections. The U.S. intelligence community has concluded Russia launched a campaign to influence the 2016 election and will try to do so again during next year's midterm elections.

It is not clear how many more of the majority Republicans in Congress will get behind the bill. It will need broader GOP support to pass. Klobuchar and Warner expressed optimism that more Republicans would support the plan.

Here's what the legislation would do, according to the senators' offices:

  • Expand federal rules to require a disclaimer and disclosure to the Federal Election Commission for paid online political ads. Ads advocating for or against a specific candidate online would also need a disclaimer. Disclaimers say whether a campaign paid for or supported the message.
  • Digital platforms with 50 million or more unique monthly visitors would have to keep a public database of political ads. They would have to maintain records for entities that bought more than $500 in political ads in the preceding 12 months. The database would have to include a copy of the ad, the rate charged and a summary of its target audience, among other pieces of information.
  • It would also require the platforms to make a "reasonable" effort to stop foreign nationals from using ads to influence elections.

The Russian effort "exposes a national security vulnerability when it comes to online political advertisements," Klobuchar said. American laws "have failed to keep up" with the technology foreign entities can use, she added.

Tech titans Facebook and Google parent Alphabet have said they found Russia-linked ads on their platforms during the election.

Klobuchar described new regulation as necessary because of both companies' vast reach. She noted that Facebook and Google accounted for nearly all digital ad revenue growth last year and now serve as a news source to millions of voters.

It remains to be seen what measures the social media platforms will support. Major technology companies have opposed similar rules in the past.

Warner on Thursday described the measures as "common sense, light touch regulations."

In a statement Thursday, Facebook said it will work with lawmakers to increase transparency in political ads.

"We have already announced the steps Facebook will take on our own and we look forward to continuing the conversation with lawmakers as we work toward a legislative solution," the company said.

A Google spokesperson said the company supports "efforts to improve transparency, enhance disclosures and reduce foreign abuse."

"We're evaluating steps we can take on our own platforms and will work closely with lawmakers, the FEC, and the industry to explore the best solutions," the spokesperson said.

Twitter has also found fake accounts and bots linked to Russia. The company has said it is taking steps to stop malicious bots and misinformation on the platform.

In a statement to CNBC on Wednesday, Twitter said it looks forward to "engaging" with Congress and the Federal Election Commission on ad transparency.

Representatives from all three of those companies will attend a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Nov. 1.

Klobuchar serves as the ranking member of the Senate Rules Committee, which has a role in elections. Warner is the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, one of the congressional panels investigating Russian meddling and possible collusion with the Donald Trump campaign.