The Honest Ads Act

U.S. Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), Vice Chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Ranking Member of the Senate Rules Committee,  and U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services introduced the Honest Ads Act (S.1989) to help prevent foreign interference in future elections and improve the transparency of online political advertisements.

Russia attempted to influence the 2016 presidential election by buying and placing political ads on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Google. The content and purchaser(s) of those online advertisements are a mystery to the public because of outdated laws that have failed to keep up with evolving technology. The Honest Ads Act would prevent foreign actors from influencing our elections by ensuring that political ads sold online are covered by the same rules as ads sold on TV, radio, and satellite.

The Honest Ads Act enhances the integrity of our democracy by improving disclosure requirements for online political advertisements by:

  • Amending the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002’s definition of electioneering communication to include paid Internet and digital advertisements.
  • Requiring digital platforms with at least 50,000,000 monthly viewers to maintain a public file of all electioneering communications purchased by a person or group who spends more than $500.00 total on ads published on their platform. The file would contain a digital copy of the advertisement, a description of the audience the advertisement targets, the number of views generated, the dates and times of publication, the rates charged, and the contact information of the purchaser.
  • Requiring online platforms to make all reasonable efforts to ensure that foreign individuals and entities are not purchasing political advertisements in order to influence the American electorate. 

Companion legislation to the Honest Ads Act was introduced in the House of Representatives by Reps. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) and Mike Coffman (R-CO).

About the Bill:

About the Sponsors

As vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Sen. Warner has been at the forefront of the Committee’s ongoing bipartisan counterintelligence investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Warner also is the co-founder of the Senate’s bipartisan Cybersecurity Caucus. In addition, Sen. Warner is working to finalize bipartisan legislation to create a comprehensive, nationwide and uniform data breach standard, requiring timelier consumer notification for breaches of financial data and other sensitive information, and setting national data-protection standards for companies handling sensitive personal information.  

As Ranking Member of the Senate Rules Committee with oversight jurisdiction over federal elections, Klobuchar has introduced legislation to improve the security of U.S. election systems and make commonsense improvements to election administration. She and Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) introduced the bipartisan Stop Foreign Donations Affecting Our Elections Act to strengthen disclosure by requiring federal campaigns to use existing credit card verification protocols to help verify that online credit card donations come from U.S. sources. Klobuchar and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) also introduced bipartisan legislation to help states block cyber-attacks, secure voter registration logs and voter data, upgrade election auditing procedures, and create secure and useful information sharing about threats. In June, Klobuchar introduced the Helping State and Local Governments Prevent Cyber Attacks Act to help combat foreign interference by providing state and local governments with the information and resources they need to keep our elections secure and improve voter confidence. 

Senator McCain has been a champion of campaign finance reform for decades. As a lead author of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, he has long advocated of transparency in the American electoral process.

Endorsements

The Honest Ads Act was introduced with the support of the Campaign Legal Center, the Sunlight Foundation, Issue One, the Brennan Center for Justice, Common Cause, and Public Citizen.

Since the bill's introduction, the Honest Ads Act has gained the support of a broad coalition of government reform organizations and experts, which sent a letter of support urging Senators to support the bill:

American Oversight

Brennan Center for Justice

Campaign Legal Center

Center for American Progress

Center for Popular Democracy

Center for Responsive Politics

Coalition for Integrity

Common Cause

CREW

Democracy 21

Demos

End Citizens United

Every Voice

Florida Consumer Action Network

Free Speech for People

Issue One

League of Women Voters

Kathleen Clark

Norm Eisen, chief White House ethics lawyer for President Obama, 2009-2011

People For the American Way

Public Citizen

Represent.Us

Revolving Door Project

Richard Painter, chief White House ethics lawyer for President Bush, 2005-2007

Small Planet Institute

Stand Up America

Sunlight Foundation

U.S. PIRG

What the Experts are Saying

Trevor Potter, president of Campaign Legal Center (CLC), and a former Republican Chairman of the Federal Election Commission

“The 2016 elections exposed glaring holes in our ability to police foreign intervention in US elections, and this bill is an appropriate, bipartisan disclosure remedy. Voters have a right to be fully informed about who is trying to influence their vote, particularly foreign powers whose motives are contrary to American interests. The Honest Ads Act gives voters, journalists, and law enforcement officers important tools to help root out illegal foreign activity. The transparency this bill aims to provide in the 2018 elections and beyond will protect and enhance the integrity of our elections, which are the most fundamental component of American self-governance.”

Ellen Weintraub, Comissioner of the Federal Election Committee

I applaud the introduction of the bipartisan “Honest Ads Act.” Online political advertising has come to play an increasingly dominant role in campaigning. It’s well past time to ensure that political advertising on the internet is not held to weaker standards than advertising on more traditional media.

The revelations of Russian interference in our 2016 elections have created an all-hands-on-deck moment for our American democracy. At the Federal Election Commission, we have an opportunity and an obligation to improve the disclaimers that accompany online political advertising. The FEC is now taking public comments on this issue at fec.gov/netdisclaimers. We need the American public to give us your thoughts and expertise and to demand that the FEC convene a public hearing and take action.

Election Day 2018 is just 383 days away, but the campaign has already begun. Congress and the FEC must act now to protect this election and all our future elections. The “Honest Ads Act” will significantly strengthen the law and empower Americans by better illuminating how campaigns are being waged on the internet.

Alexander B. Howard, Deputy Director of the Sunlight Foundation.

“Ensuring transparency and accountability remain encoded into our democracy in the 21st century has taken on new importance and relevance in the wake of the 2016 election. We hope this bill, which merits serious consideration, catalyzes an overdue public debate and substantive action in Congress and the Federal Election Commission to create platform parity for political ad disclosure across TV, radio, print and Internet companies. Opacity by design is not an acceptable status quo for the technology giants that shape public knowledge and discourse with limited accountability”

Lawrence Norden, Deputy Director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program

“The bipartisan introduction of the Honest Ads Act is an important step toward bringing American campaign finance law into the internet age, by ensuring that online political advertisements are subject to the same kind of disclosure rules that already exist for ads on television and radio. At a time when hostile foreign powers are trying to exploit loopholes in our campaign laws to manipulate American elections, it is especially important for Congress to come together across partisan lines to strengthen our democracy.  The Brennan Center applauds Senators Klobuchar, Warner and McCain for reaching across partisan lines to introduce this significant bill.”

Karen Hobert Flynn, President of Common Cause

“Americans have a right to know who is using political advertising to influence their votes and their views. As technology changes and political advertising shifts to online platforms, our transparency laws should keep pace. The recent revelations of Kremlin-connected influence operations on Facebook and Twitter underscore how important it is for Congress to take meaningful action. The HONEST Act is a critical step forward in enhancing the transparency of online political advertising. Common Cause commends Senators Klobuchar, Warner and McCain for their strong bipartisan leadership in introducing this important bill to bolster the integrity of our democracy."

Meredith McGehee, Chief of Policy, Programs and Strategy, Issue One

“The bipartisan, bicameral Honest Ads Act introduced today should be the basis for robust hearings in Congress about protecting our political system from foreign influence.

Our 20th century laws are out of date and overmatched by the 21st century reality of political campaigns. Foreign powers are hijacking the avenues Americans use to communicate, organize and debate with each other. Issue One commends these lawmakers in both chambers for working together on carefully-crafted legislation that seeks to ensure online, paid political ads on the largest platforms are treated similarly to paid political advertisements on television and radio."

Liz Kennedy, Director of Democracy and Government Reform at the Center for American Progress

"Whether paid political ads are broadcast on TV or displayed online, the American people deserve to know the true source of the funds used to influence our elections. The Honest Ads Act would apply some of the same basic disclosure requirements to online ads as it does to television ads—and importantly, it would require social media companies to take reasonable steps to prevent foreign influence in our elections. At a time when foreign adversaries are exploiting our divisions to subvert America’s democracy, we applaud this common-sense bipartisan leadership on this important issue."