The Honest Ads Act: Censorship or Security?

A new bipartisan bill entitled The Honest Ads Act could regulate the sale of ads online in an attempt to stop Russian and other interferences with elections and beyond.

On October 19, the bill proposed by Democratic Senators Mark Warner and Amy Klobuchar, and later supported by Republican Senator John McCain, attempts to regulate online ads in a way that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has done with TV, radio and print for generations. The FCC stated that the internet is “a unique and evolving mode of mass communication and political speech that is distinct from other media in a manner that warrants a restrained regulatory approach.”

Democratic Senators Mark Warner and Amy Klobuchar explain the proposed bill.

Specifically, the act would amend the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, which regulates the financing of political campaigns. The amendment changes the definition of electioneering communication to include paid internet advertisements that buy more than $500 worth of ads across multiple platforms with more than 50 million unique users per month (including Google and Facebook) to disclose that information.  It goes further by saying that there is a “reasonable expectation” for social media companies to disclose if the company that purchased an ad is from outside the United States.

Though the act targets any type of advertising, the bill is intended to affect political advertising; Google and Facebook make up 85% of online political ads.

Facebook has started to take accountability. Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg visited Washington, D.C. and acknowledged that mistakes were made during the 2016 campaign.  These mistakes including selling $100,000 worth of ads to a Russian linked company.  Google, which has not admitted fault to the same degree, is estimated to have sold at least $4,700 worth of ads to an account believed to be linked to the Russian government, according to a Newsweek article published in October.

Some like Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, have come out in support for the bill.

 

Despite the fact that some tech giants may support increased transparency, there is not widespread support for the Honest Ads Act. Facebook, Google and Twitter say that Congress should “improve transparency and disclosure of online election advertising without creating requirements that would discourage legitimate stakeholders from actively engaging in the political process or limit political speech.”

The goal of Senators Warner, Klobuchar and McCain is to get the bill to become a law before the 2018 midterm elections.

Senator John Kennedy (R-La.) summarized his issue with Facebook and other sites that inform such a large portion of the United States, saying, “Your power sometimes scares me.”

The Honest Ads Act is still being scrutinized by both government officials and social media companies, and tension remains high.  Government officials feel that this would increase transparency and stop foreign governments and entities from interfering in U.S. elections. Media companies like the increased transparency, but worry that it would discourage legitimate companies from running ads.  

This bill is proof that the government and media must continue to evolve in a world where the power of technology continues to grow.

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