Tighter rules for online political ads gain momentum — but Trump's tweets may remain disclaimer-free

Key Points
  • Dozens of groups have lobbied the Federal Election Commission to end an exemption on disclaimer rules for online ads.
  • The FEC rule-change proposal would require buyers of mobile ads on Facebook, Google and other internet services to disclose who purchased them.
  • Facebook and Google, which were grilled before Congress for Russian-bought ads during the 2016 campaign, said in their comments they would support some changes.
Source: Facebook

A wide swath of Americans just sent a clear message to the Federal Election Commission: Digital political ads should come with notices saying who purchased them, as is the case on TV and in print.

Yet the tweets of President Donald Trump and others could remain free from these disclosures, based on a proposal Twitter floated to the commission.

Today the political ads that appear on mobile devices and PCs don't require a disclaimer saying who purchased them. Ads on traditional media, on the other hand, come with long disclosures that ensure voters have information about who's behind issue-based ads.

More than two dozen members of Congress and a broad range of political groups, individuals and companies posted comments to the FEC's notice that it was considering ending the exemption.

The commission's Oct. 10 move reopened a debate that had been dormant since 2011, when Congress granted the current exemptions after digital ad sellers argued that the small size of mobile screens made such disclaimers impractical.

Yet revelations of how Russian propaganda groups placed divisive ads online using Google, Facebook and Twitter during the 2016 election campaign suggest the time has come to close that loophole, some of these groups say.

"Recent developments have highlighted several weaknesses of the current system. One ... is the ability of foreign actors to ... improperly influence U.S. elections," wrote Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which first lobbied against the exemption six years ago.

Russian-bought Facebook ads could have reached millions of voters
Russian-bought Facebook ads could have reached millions of voters

Ultimately, it will be up to Congress to pass changes to current election law, which already forbids foreign nationals from interfering in American elections.

Yet the 15 senators and 18 members of the House who submitted signed comments urging the commission to change its rules were all Democrats. With none filed yet by any GOP members, the passage of new rules is no sure thing.

The FEC's proposed rule change comes after Congress grilled executives from those three internet companies for allowing foreign nationals and propaganda groups to buy issue ads during the 2016 campaign.

The documents filed in the last few weeks included input from Google and Facebook, the largest sellers of digital ads and thus the two companies with the largest financial stake in the change. They're both now on record supporting the review of current rules.

In its comments, Google said:

"We must work together to improve transparency, enhance disclosures and reduce foreign abuse and influence in U.S. elections."

Google also said that it will produce a transparency report beginning in 2018 that will disclose ad buyers, create a database of election ads bought on YouTube and via its AdWords platform (for buying search advertisements), and will put disclosures inside ads.

Facebook's statement read, in part:

Facebook strongly supports the Commission providing further guidance to committees and other advertisers regarding their disclaimer obligations when running election- related Internet communications on any digital platform.

In the coming months, we will require more thorough documentation from advertisers who want to run ads related to federal elections, display more information from within the ads about the advertisers running such communications, and build a searchable archive of any such ads that run on the platform.

No disclaimers on tweets?

Twitter in its comments proposed what it calls a Transparency Center, where Twitter users could view information on political tweets. Yet such a system would keep individual tweets disclaimer-free.

"Cramming all of this information in the same space could significantly alter the way users engage with the platform on mobile devices," Twitter wrote in its comments.

Not everyone else is enthusiastic about the changes.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates for free speech online, said in its comments that "Regulations that intrude on anonymous speech will undermine our democracy by discouraging citizens from engaging in important public speech that could put them at personal risk for harassment, threats or violence."

That cautionary note was echoed in comments of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, a trade group that represents Facebook, Google and other tech and media companies. It its note, it said "CCIA believes that transparency can be improved and that voters should be informed regarding what ads they see online, but also urges the FEC to ensure that legitimate speech and honest political discourse are not stifled."

Still, figures cited in the comments by groups such as the Center for American Progress show how the business of selling online political ads has exploded during the last two federal election cycles.

Spending on the 2016 election surged to $1.5 billion, from $22 million in 2008, while the share of political online spending went from less than 2 percent of all political spending to more than 14 percent.

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