Facebook, Google political ads could face tougher regulation in US
The US Federal Election Commission will propose new regulations that would require disclaimers identifying the sponsors of online ads
Washington: Political ad buyers on Facebook Inc., Alphabet Inc.’s Google and other online platforms could face stricter disclosure requirements as the Federal Election Commission (FCE) moves forward to enact new rules for the internet.
The FEC will propose new regulations that would update online disclosure requirements for the first time since 2006, and would require disclaimers identifying the sponsors of online advertisements. Commissioners are scheduled to vote on Wednesday on whether to open the new rules for public comment. If they approve that action, they will later vote on whether to enact the regulations themselves.
The FEC’s move comes amid growing concerns that Russia, which used social media platforms to influence the 2016 elections, will attempt to do the same in 2018. A February memorandum from vice chair Ellen Weintraub accompanying a preliminary draft of the proposed regulations cited Russia as a reason for “swift action”.
FEC chairwoman Caroline Hunter said on Wednesday at a Bloomberg Next Tech event that under current rules, such disclaimers are already required, even for online ads. “This rule making is to provide even more clarity, because obviously the technology has changed a lot,” she said. “We’re looking for substantive comments on the technological aspects of this.”
The rules are narrowly drawn, and will apply to ads bought to expressly advocate for the election or defeat of a federal candidate, online solicitations to raise money for a political committee or candidate. Other online spending by political committees, like the promotion of a party’s positions on issues, would also have to include disclaimers. The effort is one of the few federal attempts to revise rules in the wake of Russia’s election meddling in 2016.
Bipartisan bills have been introduced in both the House and Senate that would require companies like Facebook and Google to disclose information about sponsors of political ads on their sites, including how much they’re spending and what audiences the ads are focusing on. Those disclosures would be made to the Federal Communications Commission, similar to requirements for political ads sold by television and radio stations and cable networks.
The FEC rules, if adopted, would apply to campaigns, political parties and other organizations that try to influence federal elections, but technology companies could also be affected. They might have to adapt their platforms to accommodate the kind of disclaimers the FEC will call for, particularly on mobile devices, which have less space.
“The law didn’t give us a lot of guidance on how to do these disclaimers online,” said Weintraub, who also spoke at the Bloomberg Next Tech event. The proposed rules will address ways to provide disclosure in different digital media. “My own bias is that I’d like to get as much information on the face of the ad because people don’t always click through,” she said.
In September, Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg announced an effort to bring more transparency to the political ads on the site. Rob Goldman, vice president of advertising, said later in a blog post that Facebook would create a searchable archive for federal election ads that would allow users to see who was spending, how much they spent, to whom the ad was directed, and the number of times it appeared on users’ screens.
Advancing the rules will require a unanimous vote from the commissioners. The six-member commission, which currently has two vacancies, can include no more than three members from one party, and has often deadlocked in the past, including over online disclosure rules.
Google had no comment on the proposal. A spokesman for Facebook referred to comments the company made to the FEC in November, which said in part, “Facebook supports policy measures that promote more transparency in paid communications disseminated on the Internet.”
In 2011, Facebook asked the FEC for an exemption from disclaimer rules because its ads used a “sponsored” tag that identified posts as advertisements, but not who was paying for them. The panel deadlocked on granting the exemption, and Facebook kept using the sponsored ad tag rather than requiring political advertisers to include disclaimer language.
That unresolved 2011 request by Facebook became the basis for the FEC’s current action. In October, the FEC reopened the matter in order to solicit comments on ways to require more disclosure for online ads.
The last time the FEC issued a ruling on internet advertising was in 2006, the year after YouTube was founded and at a time when Facebook had just 12 million users. That ruling required a disclaimer for all “paid internet advertising placed on another person’s website,” such as banner ads. The requirement exempted other forms of internet communications, including blog posts. Bloomberg
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