Klobuchar's proposal to hold Facebook, Google and Twitter accountable for shady election ads

Sen. Amy Klobuchar has a proposal that would close the online election ad loophole.
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Sen. Amy Klobuchar, introducing the Honest Ads Act Thursday.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, introducing the Honest Ads Act Thursday.

When someone buys a political ad on TV or radio in the weeks before an election, they generally have to file a report. It includes things like who bought the ad, how much money was spent, and which candidates are referred to.

When someone buys a political ad online, say through Facebook or Google? None of that needs to be disclosed.

It's those "outdated" laws that Sen. Amy Klobuchar and two of her colleagues are taking aim at, introducing a bill to make internet election ads far more transparent.

The Honest Ads Act would bring paid internet and digital advertisements more in line with the standards TV and radio are held to, according to Klobuchar's announcement.

Any digital platform with at least 50 million monthly viewers (peanuts to Facebook) would have to keep a public file of all "electioneering communications" (election-related ads, paid for in the couple months before the election) if the ad buy was more than $500. It would have to include:

  • A digital copy of the ad.
  • A description of the audience the ad targeted.
  • How many views the ad got.
  • The date and time it was published.
  • How much the ad cost.
  • And contact information for whoever bought it.

Those online platforms would also be required to undertake "all reasonable efforts" to make sure foreign individuals and groups are not buying ads to try to interfere with an election.

Klobuchar painted it as "an issue of national security."

"Russia attacked us and will continue to use different tactics to undermine our democracy and divide our country, including by purchasing disruptive online political ads," she said. 

She introduced the proposal Thursday with Sens. Mark Warner (Democrat from Virginia) and John McCain (Republican from Arizona).

Why this is a big deal

Facebook in September revealed thousands of ads were purchased by Russian accounts leading up to and after the 2016 election. The goal of those ads was generally to inflame and manipulate political discussion by touching on hypersensitive topics: gun control or racial justice, for example.

After Facebook came forward, the New York Times said Google found Russia-linked election ads had been bought on its websites, such as YouTube and Gmail. Russian-linked Twitter accounts also spent more than a quarter-million dollars on that platform, CNBC said.

Foreign nationals can not give money or help in connection with any election in the U.S. It's also illegal for them to donate to any political party or organization, at any level, or advocate for (or against) a specific candidate. It's all in the FEC's rules.

But according to Reuters, the law only covers TV and radio – it does not mention online.

Whether election laws were violated in this whole Russia-online ads saga is not clear right now, as the Washington Post explains. If the Russian accounts had any type of help or coordination with a campaign, or if the ads clearly endorse a candidate, then yeah, it probably was illegal.

If the ads were broader, then there might be some legal wiggle room, the Washington Post says.

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg in late September announced new rules about ad transparency, including better review of political ads. 

But the technology shift over the past 15 years has created an online loophole in the laws of the U.S. (Slate dives into it more here) that Klobuchar, Warner and McCain argue should be closed.

"This bipartisan legislation would help protect our democracy by updating our laws to ensure that political ads sold online are covered by the same rules as TV or radio stations – and make them public so Americans can see who is trying to influence them," said Klobuchar.

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