Economy, Sci & Tech

Movement to Regulate Online Political Ads Gains Momentum

Democratic Senators Amy Klobuchar (L) and Mark Warner introduced the Honest Ads Act, in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 19.Democratic Senators Amy Klobuchar (L) and Mark Warner introduced the Honest Ads Act, in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 19.

A bipartisan group of US senators took the first steps this week toward regulating online political advertising in a manner similar to the way the government already regulates these ads in the traditional media.

Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Mark Warner, joined by Republican Sen. John McCain, say their Honest Ads Act will protect against foreign interference in elections by requiring platforms like Facebook to make details about ads’ buyers, pricing and targeting publicly available, The Verge reported.

Advocates cheered the move, which they said represented a long-overdue step to apply the same standards of transparency and fairness to online ads that have long been the norm for print, radio and television.

At the same time, the bill’s passage is far from certain: So far, it has just one Republican supporter in Congress and tech companies that would be affected have deployed a phalanx of lobbyists.

“It goes a long way,” said Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, which advocates transparency in political advertising and helped to draft the legislation.

“Opacity by design is not an acceptable status quo for the technology giants that shape public knowledge and discourse with limited accountability,” he wrote in a blog post after the bill’s introduction. “We are excited to see bipartisan support for more transparency and accountability online.”

The Honest Ads Act would require large platform companies like Facebook and Google to retain copies of the political ads they serve and make them available for public inspection.

The companies would also have to publish information about who bought the ad, how much it cost and what rates they were charged. The act would apply to any platform with more than 50 million monthly users and anyone who spent more than $500 a year on online ads.

Publicly, tech companies are voicing support for some form of regulation, while stopping short of offering a full-throated endorsement of the Honest Ads bill’s actual provisions.

“We stand with lawmakers in their effort to achieve transparency in political advertising,” said Erin Egan, vice president of US public policy for Facebook, in a statement.

“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.”

Facebook has already committed to making copies of ads publicly available. It also pledged to make more prominent disclosures about who paid for the ads on the advertisements themselves.

 It’s part of the company’s nine-point plan to reset the online social media’s relationship with democracy, which Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg laid out last month after mounting pressure to act.

But while the company is not commenting beyond Egan’s statement, it is likely Facebook would oppose several provisions within the act.

For one thing, the company has a long history of opposing regulation of its ads. For another, the requirement to disclose the pricing for every political ad goes beyond what is required for print and broadcast ads.

The requirement to post targeting information could meet resistance as well. Until now, politicians have been able to target different groups of voters in stealth, using the so-called “dark posts”, which appear only in the News Feed and do not have permanent links.

Forcing candidates to admit they are targeting different messages at voters, especially inconsistent ones, could have a chilling effect on their use of Facebook’s ad platform.

But the bill’s sponsors say such disclosures are essential to protect against foreign interference in US elections.

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