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It’s now clear to everyone — with the possible exception of Donald Trump — that operatives linked to Russia took advantage of Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms to stoke divisions among Americans during last year’s presidential campaign. This meddling ought to outrage Americans regardless of their party affiliation.

Now, legislation has been introduced in both houses of Congress that would attempt to make it at least somewhat harder for Russians and other foreign actors to use social media to manipulate public opinion in this country and influence elections. Equally important, it would shine more light on the sources of online advertising in election campaigns.

The Honest Ads Act sponsored in the Senate by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Mark Warner (D-Va.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) would mandate that election-related online advertising be subject to the same disclosure and disclaimer requirements as similar ads in other media. It also would require online platforms, as well as broadcasters and cable and satellite TV companies, to make reasonable efforts to ensure that the political advertisements they disseminate comply with the existing ban on foreigners spending money to influence U.S. elections.

Election law has been painfully slow to catch up with the growing importance of online political advertising. According to Borrell Associates, a data tracking firm, political spending on digital advertising in the 2016 election cycle amounted to $1.4 billion, nearly an 800% increase from the previous presidential election. (“Digital advertising” includes search, display, email, video, social media and mobile marketing efforts.) The figure is projected to rise to $1.9 billion in the 2018 election cycle and $2.8 billion in 2020.

Unlike radio and television stations, internet platforms aren’t “public” entities operated under a government license.
Online services have resisted the idea that paid political messages on their platforms should be subject to requirements that they identify those financing the ads; some have compared online political ads to trivial examples of political communication, such as campaign buttons or bumper stickers.

Those are clearly obsolete analogies. And while there may not be room for a disclaimer on a campaign button, software engineers should find it easy to satisfy the bill’s requirement that an ad state in a “clear and conspicuous manner” who paid for it. (Running the computer mouse over the ad, for example, could pull up the disclosure statement.)

Granted, there’s always the risk that foreign governments and operatives will try to conceal their involvement by funneling money through innocuous-sounding groups based in the United States. The bill wouldn’t make matters any better or worse on that front.

A more fundamental challenge for the bill’s authors is that much of the meddling done in last year’s campaign wasn’t in advertisements — it was in news (and fake news) stories circulated, tweeted and retweeted online. Many of the posts attributed to Russia focused on divisive social issues such as race, gun control, immigration and gay rights. Such communications would largely be ignored by the Klobuchar bill.

What the measure would do is require internet companies to maintain records not just of election-related advertisements but also of ads related to “a national legislative issue of public importance.”

There are two problems with this provision, however. First, it’s a disproportionate response to the possibility that Russians or other foreigners may be violating U.S. election law. While foreigners are prohibited from spending money on election-related advertising, the Federal Election Commission and the courts have said they are allowed to subsidize “issue ads.”

A more serious issue is that, unlike radio and television stations, internet platforms aren’t “public” entities operated under a government license. There may be 1st Amendment problems with subjecting them to the same record-keeping requirements that are imposed on radio and TV stations.

The fact that Congress has limited power to regulate online forums for political speech doesn’t mean that social media companies can’t act on their own to be more vigilant about manipulation of their platforms by foreign actors, whether it take the form of deceptive advertising or “fake news.” After Facebook revealed that a Russian company with ties to the Kremlin had purchased more than $100,000 worth of divisive ads on its site, Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg pledged to “do our part to defend against nation states attempting to spread misinformation and subvert elections.” On Friday, Facebook announced that it would require disclosure by buyers of political ads and adopt other transparency measures.

That sort of self-policing is clearly part of the solution. But so is measured legislation that requires transparency in election advertising regardless of where it appears.


During the 2016 election, hostile foreign powers unleashed unprecedented, anonymous attacks on the American people through the largest online platforms, the equivalent of strafing our TV sets with lies and disinformation during the 1960s and 1970s. The Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-linked “troll farm” spent more than $100,000 on thousands of Facebook advertisements linked to the election and divisive social issues.

Due to the highly-targeted nature of the advertisements and private platforms they infected, neither the wider public nor civil society has been able to see the content of the ads. The government and watchdog groups were similarly left in the dark until after the election, subsequently, when the damage was potentially done. The national security implications of foreign entities continuing to meddle in American elections are a clear and present danger to the United States.

Yet, nearly a year later and despite months of investigations, lawmakers of both parties have been slow to act. Meanwhile, the country remains vulnerable to foreign interference. In his recently published book “The Darkening Web,” Harvard Professor Alexander Klimburg wrote that “the rise of cyberspace has breathed new life into former Soviet military strategy.” He goes on to observe that “Russia’s philosophy of information conflict is much older than the United States.”

The bottom line is that current law does not in any way protect our election system from this type of foreign intervention, and every free society should have adequate protections in place to maintain open, fair and unfettered elections. We still do not know who is trying to sow disinformation and propaganda campaigns across American-made digital platforms where hundreds of millions of Americans communicate and organize.

The newly introduced Honest Ads Act aims to finally address the deficiencies in political disclosure law that allow foreign actors to attack the United States anonymously. The carefully crafted, bipartisan, bicameral legislation is sponsored in the Senate by Rules Committee Ranking Democrat Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.), and Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.). It in the House by Reps. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) and Mike Coffman (R-Colo.).

The bill would address the critical problem that our 20th century laws are out of date and overmatched by the 21st century reality of political campaigns. Our current regime has us fighting cyber warfare with the equivalent of telegrams and the Pony Express. The Honest Ads Act would modernize our technological arsenal to combat foreign influence by ensuring that paid political ads on the largest online platforms are treated similarly to paid political advertisements on television and radio.

These transparency standards are not new. The bill uses longstanding Federal Communication Commission disclosure rules about broadcast advertisements, which have been in place for a decade, to better serve the digital medium. Private companies, such as Facebook and Google, would have to obtain information from the purchaser, the cost, the targeted audience, and what candidate or issue is the subject of each ad. This would give the American people enough information to understand who is attempting to influence their vote and allow government agencies to determine if the ad is impermissible foreign interference in U.S. politics.

Additionally, the Honest Ads Act subjects the platform and the ad purchaser to fines for failing to follow the law as a preventative measure against widespread abuse in the future, like the public saw in the 2016 election. Most importantly, this narrowly tailored legislation seeks to protect the First Amendment rights of Americans engaging in political debate. It is only targeted at the platforms who make millions or billions of dollars selling political ads, placing them on equal standing with broadcast radio and television.

Beyond this legislation, Congress must perform its oversight job and ask tough questions when Twitter and Facebook testify before the Senate and House Intelligence Committees next Wednesday. Republicans and Democrats in both legislative chambers should use the Honest Ads Act as the starting point for robust dialogue about the best practices necessary to reassure Americans their First Amendment rights are protected from domestic and foreign attack.

As Senator Klobuchar said at the press conference unveiling the bill, “Election security is national security.” Congress cannot allow hostile foreign powers to influence or impact U.S. elections. The failure to set aside partisan politics and move forward on this bipartisan legislation opens the possibility of ignoring the direct threat and sitting on our hands. It is time for Congress to fully embrace its obligation to protect the American people from a new form of enemy attacks called “cyber war.”

Timothy Roemer is a former U.S. ambassador to India, member of Congress from Indiana, and 9/11 commissioner. Zachary Wamp is a former member of Congress from Tennessee. They co-chair the Issue One Reformers Caucus, a bipartisan coalition of former members of Congress, Cabinet officials, and governors who advocate for solutions to fix democracy.

As a response to the Russian campaign to sow discord in the 2016 presidential election, the so-called Honest Ads Act is wholly inadequate. It is also entirely necessary.

The legislation, introduced last week by Democratic senators Mark Warner of Virginia and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, requires online platforms with at least 50 million monthly users -- think Facebook, Google and Twitter -- to make a public record of advertisers who spend at least $500 on political ads regarding campaigns or significant legislative issues. The record would include information regarding the ad's content, its target audience and its cumulative views, as well as its cost. It would also list any candidate referred to in the ad and contact information for the entity that purchased it.

All this information would be placed in a publicly accessible database. Under the legislation, platforms would be required to make "reasonable efforts" to police foreign purchases.

True, this legislation focuses solely on advertising, so would not have prevented some of the most successful subversions of the 2016 election -- the Russian propaganda that spread over social networks as unpaid media. Still, a U.S. defense against election interference has to begin somewhere. Russians spent at least $100,000 on Facebook ads. Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, has said he believes such spending constitutes the "tip of the iceberg."

The challenge will only grow more complex as the internet becomes an ever-larger conduit for political communication. Digital spending reached $1.4 billion in the 2016 election, up more than 700 percent over 2012.

Representatives from Facebook, Google and Twitter will testify before House and Senate panels next week. They should come prepared with suggestions on how their powerful, pervasive and lucrative platforms can help root out foreign agents seeking to undermine American democracy, through paid advertising and otherwise. It's not an impossible task: Internet platforms shut down thousands of suspicious accounts during last spring's French election.

Requiring online platforms to perform the minimal record-keeping and due diligence required of television and radio stations is a necessary step toward protecting the integrity of U.S. elections. This is a cause that transcends both commercial and partisan concerns -- the bill has the support of Republican Senator John McCain. Congress should pass the Honest Ads Act. Then build on it.

by Rana Foroohar

If there was ever a piece of no-brainer legislation that should be passed by Congress, it is the Honest Ads Act put forward last week by US senators Amy Klobuchar, Mark Warner and John McCain. This bipartisan group is asking for online political advertising to be subject to the same rules of disclosure as ads on television, print, and radio. The idea is to make sure that foreign nations like Russia cannot use platforms such as Facebook, Google or Twitter to influence US elections, as they did in 2016.

The legislation is necessary for three reasons. First, it would even the playing field between platform companies and the rest of the media industry. This is long overdue. Google and Facebook together take roughly 85 per cent of all new digital advertising revenue. For years, they have come up with absurd excuses for why they should not be subject to the same rules as everyone else (online ads are too small to include disclaimers; it is too tough to figure out if ads are commercial or political, and so on).

Their reasoning does not hold water. These businesses have traditionally been just fine using the smallest of small print on privacy policies, so it should not be too much trouble to do the same thing with political disclosures. And if it is too tough to figure out what is political, play it safe and disclose everything.

Of course they do not want to do that, because opacity is a key part of what political operatives are paying for. That is reason number two that this legislation should pass — it would go some way towards cleaning up dark money and influence in politics.

Online advertising is hyper-targeted. That is the whole appeal. We get to see things that are meant for our eyes only. Rather than clear, broad messages that are put where everyone can see them, online advertising can play to the deepest fears of individuals, allowing them to be exploited with divisive or hateful messages that could be much more easily called out and debunked if they were, say, being shown on national TV or in a print advertisement in a major paper.

Indeed, as one political insider put it to me, it is not just the Russians, but our politicians themselves who want to keep their advertising in the dark. Consider, for example, the Trump campaign’s xenophobic pre-election posts on Facebook. The US president is somewhat singular in that he does not seem to mind openly dog-whistling. But others might well be deterred from taking the low road if they could be openly named and shamed for doing so.

The third reason the Honest Ads Act should pass is it would be a step towards reframing the regulatory debate around Big Tech. Large and powerful industries and companies that enjoy monopoly rents often like to portray themselves as “special” or “different”, and thus in need of a separate set of rules.

After a time, this idea of a separate playing field gets normalised. Monopolists also use complexity to obfuscate clear debate about what they are actually doing, and whose interests they are serving. I cannot tell you how many conversations I have had with fast talking financiers — and more recently, technologists — who try to throw as much jargon against the wall as fast as possible to see what sticks.

Yet the best questions are often the simplest ones. In the case of the financial sector, it was and remains: “What is the industry doing that is good for the real economy, versus what is good only for the financial industry?” We await a clear answer there. In the case of Big Tech, we might start with the question: “Are you playing by the same rules as everyone else, and if not, why not?”

The answer to the first question is clearly no. I hope that the Honest Ads Act will pass, and that lawmakers will move on to examining Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which says that platforms are not responsible for what their users post.

It is a get-out-of-jail free clause which has protected the industry from all sorts of legal issues that most businesses deal with every day, and is as outdated and unfair as the loopholes around political ad disclosure online.

Regulators should also look a lot more carefully at whether the M&A practices of the tech titans are anti-competitive. Consider Facebook’s recent purchase of tbh, a polling app aimed at teenagers, on which 5m users have posted 1bn questions since its launch three months ago.

As Matt Stoller, a fellow at the Open Markets Institute, a think-tank, tweeted: “Facebook is buying a competitor that undercuts its data-harvesting business model. FTC [the US Federal Trade Commission] should block this merger.”

I also hope that lawmakers will begin to educate themselves more thoroughly about the 21st-century digital economy. There are a handful of politicians who have done so. But not many.

I recently asked one high-level software developer from a Big Tech company, someone who frequently visits Washington, to rank technological understanding among not only Congress members, but among the Capitol Hill staffers who brief them. On a scale of zero to 10, he put that understanding at “negative 10”.

That is great for his company. But it is dangerous for the rest of us, because understanding Big Tech is now crucial to understanding not only politics, but the economy at large.

Kudos to Arizona’s Sen. John McCain for stepping up to co-sponsor the Honest Ads Act, which would force Facebook, Google and other online companies to play by the same rules as older media, and disclose who’s paying for political advertising.

The bill’s Democratic sponsors, Sens. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Mark Warner (Va.), are motivated by fury in their party over Russian meddling in an election that Hillary Clinton lost. But in reality, this is about far more than stopping foreign interference in US politics.

Back when today’s disclosure rules were written in 2002, Internet ads weren’t a factor. Now they are: Indeed, Trump campaign guru Kellyanne Conway cites the Clinton team’s ineptness with them as a key to the outcome.

More than $1 billion-with-a-b went for digital political ads last year, and the figure is sure to soar in the future. It would be insane not to demand transparency going forward.

Online firms may claim it’s particularly hard for them to enforce or execute disclosure — but that’s their problem. They reap endless benefits from their no questions asked as long as you’ve got the cash approach; too bad if it doesn’t serve them well here.

Facebook has actually claimed that figuring out whether an ad is commercial or political is just too challenging. Write some algorithms, folks. Or hire some more live bodies if the robots just can’t hack it.

Big Tech knows it can’t continue to fly under the radar here — but its lobbyists are at work looking to minimize the impact of new laws. Ironically, one top fixer is Marc Elias, a senior adviser to the Hillary campaign, who for years has been helping Google and Facebook request exemptions from Federal Election Commission rules.

In addition to the Senate bill, the FEC is taking a fresh look at how its regulations apply to Internet ads. It plainly needs to move past its 2006 ruling that these involve “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.”

But Congress should act, too — and other Republicans should join McCain in insisting on it. This is too important to let the tech lobbyists score continued special treatment.

Whether the Trump presidential campaign colluded with Russian agents to tip the 2016 presidential campaign is an open question, but there is no doubt of Russian interference.

One of the main ways that Russian agents attempted to influence the election was through tightly targeted ads on social media sites such as Facebook. For example, Facebook has turned over to Congress about 3,000 ads steeped in political dirty tricks. One purported to be in behalf of a nonexistent Muslim group supporting Hillary Clinton, another falsely claimed to represent Black Lives Matter. Facebook alone said it had identified 470 pages and accounts engaged in the activity, which generated about $100,000 in ad revenue.

Identifying the true sources of political advertising is in everyone’s interest. A candidate who benefits from such a campaign today could be stung by it tomorrow. And voters, as a general principle, deserve to know the actual sources of the pitches that they receive.

Wednesday, Sen. John McCain of Arizona became the first Republican to cosponsor the Honest Ads Act, which was introduced by Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Mark Warner of Virginia. It would create disclosure standards for online political ads.

Congress should approve the bill and use it as a catalyst to eliminate “dark money” by establishing full disclosure of all contributions used for political advocacy.

By Lawrence Norden and Ian Vandewalker

Thanks to a recent revelation from Google, we now know that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube—three of the most prominent online platforms in the U.S.—sold political ads to the Russians ahead of the 2016 election.

Congress has long been concerned about foreign spending in our elections, which it sees as a national security issue: It banned such spending in the 1966 congressional amendments to the Foreign Agents Registration Act. But the law hasn’t kept up with technology, creating a loophole that allowed the Russians to purchase ads without detection in 2016.

The loophole exists because the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which was passed in 2002, only refers to broadcast, cable, and satellite communications in its definition of “electioneering communications”—that is, political advertisements that attack or praise a candidate without explicitly urging the viewer to vote for or against her. BCRA required the purchaser of such advertisements on TV or radio to be disclosed, and amended the original Federal Election Campaign Act of 1974 to prohibit foreign nationals (and governments) from engaging in such political spending. But BCRA didn’t mention internet advertisements—which is unsurprising since they barely existed at the time.

The revelations about Russian ads online have fueled calls for Congress to revisit campaign finance law as it applies to the internet and make sure we find a way to prevent Russia, or any other foreign power, from spending on political ads in the United States again.

On Thursday, we took a step in the right direction. Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain, and Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner have introduced the bipartisan Honest Ads Act. The bill creates a framework for updating campaign finance law for the 21st century, making a broader swath of online activity subject to transparency requirements and the ban on spending by foreign nationals.

The Honest Ads Act does this by expanding the definition of “electioneering communication” to include paid political advertisements online. It also requires major internet platforms to maintain a public database of all such communications purchased by a person or group if they spend more than $500. The company would include a digital copy, a description of the audience targeted, and the rate charged for each ad. Finally, the act requires online platforms to make all reasonable efforts to ensure that foreign citizens and powers are not purchasing political advertisements, just as radio and television broadcasters are already required to do.

Of course, the Honest Ads Act is not a silver bullet. The ad purchases on Facebook, Google, and Twitter were a brazen undertaking. The act would close off some avenues that the Russians used in 2016, but Moscow could in the future—and let’s not kid ourselves, may have in 2016—also purchase political ads through “dark money” groups. Thanks in part to Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United, these groups can take unlimited contributions from donors without having to disclose them.

The good news is that this problem, too, has a legislative solution. The DISCLOSE Act, versions of which have been introduced in Congress since 2010, would eliminate dark money as we know it. At its core, the legislation would require any group that spent above a threshold amount on elections to disclose its major donors of $10,000 or more.

Even without the passage of the DISCLOSE Act or similar legislation, the Honest Ads Act can play an important role in exposing and limiting the influence of Russian and other foreign election propaganda online. That is in large measure thanks to the work of nongovernmental organizations and the media, which have begun to expose how Russian political propaganda is influencing the political discourse in the United States.

A year ago, the Honest Ads Act would have zero chance of passage.
To take one example, the Alliance for Securing Democracy, an initiative from the German Marshall Fund, recently debuted a web resource called Hamilton 68, which tracks the spread of Russian propaganda on Twitter based on a list of 600 accounts that have amplified Russian state messages in the past. If we were to combine that tool with the repository of political ads that the Honest Ads Act would create, we should be better able to see how messages being pushed by the Kremlin are making their way into political ads and which potential voters are seeing them.

Of course, whether the Honest Ads Act will pass is far from clear. A year ago, the bill would have zero chance of passage and would have been firmly opposed by the major social media platforms. Today, with growing public disgust at Russia’s ability to covertly purchase political ads, there just may be an opportunity to close a gaping loophole that should never have existed in the first place. The New York Times reports that the “[t]ech Industry is mobilizing an army of lobbyists and lawyers … to help shape proposed regulations,” but the uniform opposition from the platforms themselves may have broken. Erin Egan, Facebook’s vice president for United States public policy, seemed to concede the possibility of a change in the law, telling the Times, “We look forward to continuing the conversation with lawmakers as we work toward a legislative solution” to “achieve transparency in political advertising.”

No doubt the odds of passing a new rule with teeth are long. But the bipartisan introduction of the bill, with the joint participation of McCain, is an encouraging sign. It was his leadership in the early 2000s that led to the passage of BCRA, the last major piece of campaign finance legislation passed by Congress.

As a relatively new medium for mass communication with few international boundaries, the internet (especially social media) presents unique challenges to the long-standing American interest in limiting the ability of unfriendly foreign governments to interfere with our elections. Ultimately, responding to this threat is going to take a multipronged effort involving both government and civil society, including the social media platforms and search engines themselves.

The passage of the Honest Ads Act would not make it impossible for the Russians or others to interfere in our next elections. But it would be a critical component of our effort to fight back by both eliminating opportunities for hidden foreign spending and providing American audiences with vital information on who’s trying to manipulate them. And having our leaders come together to strengthen our democracy’s defenses would send a powerful signal that we’re serious about addressing that threat.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture.