- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 19, 2017

Senators introduced bipartisan legislation Thursday to require online political ads face the same disclosure requirements as advertisements on TV or in print, hoping to thwart the type of disinformation campaign used by Russia to disrupt the 2016 election.

The bill would require any groups that spend more than $500 in total on political ads to disclose the ads’ buyer and the audiences targeted. All advertising platforms would also be required to employ “reasonable efforts” to ensure that foreign nationals are not behind the political ads.

“If a candidate or a cause buys an ad on TV, the same rules should apply if they buy it on Facebook or Google or on Twitter,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, one of the sponsors of the bill.

With approximately $1.4 billion spent on online political ads during the last election, lawmakers said the bill is a way to safeguard the integrity of future elections.

Ms. Klobuchar said the recent disclosure that Russian entities with links to the Kremlin spent $100,000 on more than 3,000 divisive Facebook ads is proof laws need updating.

Co-sponsors of the Honest Ads Act include Sen. Mark Warner, Virginia Democrat, and Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican.

Federal regulations now require television and radio stations to make publicly available the details of political ads they air. That includes who runs the ad, when it runs and how much it costs.

Under the bill, digital platforms with an average of 50 million or more unique monthly visitors would be required to keep a public file of all political advertisements bought by a purchaser who spends a total of $500 or more on political ads over the last 12 months.

The public file would have to include the content of the ad, who paid for it, as well as the average rate charged for the ad.

The Federal Election Commission would police the law.

Mr. Warner acknowledged that the legislation is a starting point and doesn’t capture those who falsely claim to represent a candidate or organization, but said they’re taking a “light touch” at this point, hoping to at least get technology companies looking for bad actors.

“If you’ve got a lot of Russian URLs that are paying in rubles, that would probably lead to you to a reasonable expectation that they ought to get a closer look to determine are they American or are they Russian,” Mr. Warner said.

The senators expect the legislation will be discussed at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing set for Nov. 1. Executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter have been invited to testify.

The lawmakers said they want new rules in place in time to help next year’s election.

Transparency advocates were quick to laud the bill.

“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,” said Alexander B. Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation.

Early evaluations from the tech companies appeared promising.

“We look forward to engaging with Congress and the FEC on these issues,” a Twitter spokeswoman said.

Erin Egan, Facebook’s vice president for U.S. Public Policy, said her company has already said it would require political advertisers to disclose who is paying for them and said the company looks forward “to continuing the conversation with lawmakers as we work toward a legislative solution.”

“We stand with lawmakers in their effort to achieve transparency in political advertising,” she said.

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