A group of United States senators is looking to lead the charge on creating legislation that would ensure full transparency when it comes to buying political ad space on the internet.
Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Mark Warner (D-VA) are calling this legislation the Honest Ads Act, which, according to the official release, "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." A Facebook spokesperson commented on the legislation, telling CNet, that they "are open to working with lawmakers and reviewing any reasonable legislative proposals." Twitter also told them that they "look forward to engaging with Congress and the FEC on these issues."
With the inclusion of Senator John McCain as a co-sponsor, the legislation becomes bipartisan, which is something Warner touched on to reporters. According to Politico, he said, "This is the first substantive bipartisan piece of legislation that’s trying to — with a very light touch, because we don’t want to slow down innovation, or restrict free speech or people’s access to the internet — to deal with the problem that we saw in 2016 in terms of foreign interference in our electoral process." McCain also explained why he backs the bill, saying it's "for the same reason I have been for transparency in campaign finance reform for the last 25 years."
Quartz's report on the bill outlines what the Act aims to do exactly. They write:
The Honest Ads Act would require social media and internet companies who have more than a set number of users (a figure in the tens of millions) to make public detailed information about any political advertiser who spent just a few thousand dollars on their platforms, according to two people briefed on the bill. It would require these companies to:
- Make public digital copies of any advertisement these groups purchase, including the dates and times published.
- Include a description of the audience and political ad target, and the number of times it was viewed.
- Disclose contact information for the ads’ purchaser, and how much they paid for the ad.
- Make “reasonable efforts” to ensure that any political ads or messaging isn’t purchased by a foreign national, directly or indirectly.
As the Senate's Intelligence Committee continues its deep dive into Facebook, Twitter, and Google's roles in the 2016 election, the need for some measure of regulation on political ads becomes more and more evident. The Independent estimates that Russia bought space for at least 3,000 ads, bringing in about $100,000 in revenue for the social network. That's a lot of propaganda. To their credit, Facebook has been doing its best to remain compliant with U.S. intelligence officials, outlining the steps they're taking to combat future election influencing, which includes hiring more people to vet submitted ads. The company's top executives are also set to appear before a House intelligence committee next week to talk about how their platform may have served as a means of influence.
But, as the Wall Street Journal reported last week, Facebook also "cut references to Russia from a public report in April." That report was on how Facebook could have been manipulated to influence the election — exactly what the intelligence committee is trying to find out. It seems like a sketchy move, one that could prove to be costly as they head to Washington.
Twitter and Google have also been invited to appear before the intelligence committee, with Twitter announcing that they're sending their top legal counsel to the meeting along with Facebook's representative, per The Hill. Google has yet to respond to the invite.
Previously, Twitter earned the ire of Senator Warner, co-author of the Honest Ads Act. Warner called out the company, saying he was "deeply disappointed" with the efforts they had put forth in researching potential Russian links to accounts and ads on Twitter. He said their efforts were derivative of Facebooks, as they acted mainly on reports already created by the other social network.
More recently, BuzzFeed News ran a report that said Twitter took its sweet time in suspending @Ten_GOP, a "fake account run by a Russian troll farm" linked to the Kremlin which pulled in at least 136,000 followers before it was "permanently suspended," according to their report. The account, which claimed to be representing the Tennessee GOP, had been reported by the actual, official Tennessee GOP on three separate occasions, but Twitter offered no response. It was only days after the last report from the Tennessee GOP that Twitter moved to suspend it.
That delayed reaction has come to define many people's experiences with Twitter's enforcement team, whose actions continue to serve as a big, gaping void of questions as the company gears up to implement some policy changes regarding harassment and abuse of their platform. Those changes seemed to be a response to a letter from a few Congress members, who urged the company to do something about the racism rampant on their platform.
Now, Facebook has their own letter from Congress, as CNet reports Congressmen Keith Ellison and John Conyers have called on Facebook to change their tack regarding how they handle hate speech. In their letter, they wrote, in part, "Allowing for the spread of violent and hateful ideologies on Facebook, a network with nearly 2 billion unique users, poses a grave threat to not only our most marginalized and threatened communities, but to our entire civil society." Representative Ellison shared the full letter in a tweet:
Facebook has an incredible amount of power--we should know how they wield that power, including clarification on their hate speech policies. pic.twitter.com/tb0nbbHVNC— Rep. Keith Ellison (@keithellison) October 18, 2017