- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 28, 2020

House Democrats have developed new proposals to block online political ads that use demographic or behavioral data to hone in on their intended audience.

A new bill by Rep. Anna Eshoo of California would dramatically alter the advertising on websites that collect information from at least 50 million people, including search engines and social media sites such as Facebook.

The legislation, called the Banning Microtargeted Political Ads Act, would prohibit online platforms from targeted political ads using demographic and behavioral data but it would allow the targeting of broad geographies and of users who give their consent.

“Microtargeting political ads fractures our open democratic debate into millions of private, unchecked silos, allowing for the spread of false promises, polarizing lies, disinformation, fake news, and voter suppression,” Ms. Eshoo said. “With spending on digital ads in the 2020 election expected to exceed $1.3 billion, Congress must step in to protect our nation’s democratic process.”

Under the bill, violations of her legislation would be enforced by the Federal Election Commission.

Social media platforms and political advertisers likely have wide avenues to challenge the law, and it is not clear if the measure would withstand a court challenge.

Political speech is among the most protected speech by federal courts, which have previously shown that challengers must reach a high bar in demonstrating that tech platforms are capable of violating a user’s First Amendment rights.

The federal appeals court in D.C. this week rejected a complaint from right-wing activist Laura Loomer that Google, Twitter, Apple and Facebook had violated her First Amendment rights and suppressed conservative viewpoints.

Ms. Eshoo’s legislation has garnered support from a coalition of liberal groups and advocates, particularly those focused on technology and privacy policy.

“While there is more work to be done to bring transparency and accountability to digital political ads, the Banning Microtargeted Political Ads Act is a welcomed first step in updating our election laws to close a significant loophole and hold willful enablers accountable for their actions,” said Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Not everyone is sold on legislation as the best remedy to address concerns with microtargeting, including Zach Graves, the policy head at the Lincoln Network, a technology policy advocacy group. Mr. Graves said he is not convinced banning microtargeting for political ads is smart or constitutional.

“Instead, I think platforms should implement robust transparency/databases of such ads and maintain strong partnerships with relevant federal agencies to identify tax violations or national security issues (e.g. foreign interference),” Mr. Graves said in an email to The Washington Times.

Some social media companies, such as Facebook, have already developed such databases. Facebook’s Ad Library allows anyone to browse political ads that have run on the site and gain insight into the demographic and geographic data of who saw the ads.

Democratic opposition to microtargeted political ads can be traced to Facebook. Rep. David N. Cicilline, Rhode Island Democrat, said last week he would introduce a proposal aimed at curbing microtargeting and pointed to tactics used by Russian intelligence agencies ahead of the 2016 presidential election as evidence for why reform is needed.

“Microtargeting is a threat to our democracy,” Mr. Cicilline said last week. “Campaigns and foreign actors can use this technology to manipulate voters with high volumes of misleading information that is virtually impossible to keep track of.”

The sharp-shooting ads are not limited to the political realm, but Ms. Eschoo isn’t going after the practice in the commercial sector. The legislation is tailored to any “electioneering communication” and does not directly address how businesses and retailers develop and deploy ad technology.

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