John McCain and two Democratic senators introduced a bipartisan bill Thursday (Oct. 19) that would force internet companies to adhere to the same rules for political advertisements that other media like television and print have followed for decades. Big Tech is pushing back with a wave of lobbying efforts, according to a report in The New York Times, and one of the lawyers working to help companies handle the proposed transparency rules was a senior advisor on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
The new bill, called the “Honest Ads Act,” is a response to the recent news that, leading up to the 2016 presidential election, $100,000 in political ads were purchased through Facebook accounts that were later linked to Russia.
The Clinton advisor, Marc Elias, was general counsel on Clinton’s campaign and is in charge of political law at Perkins Coie, the Seattle-based counsel of record for the Democratic National Committee. In 2010 and 2011, Perkins Coie sent letters signed by Elias on behalf of Google and Facebook, respectively, requesting that the companies be exempt from rules that would require political ads on the platforms to disclose who paid for them. The letters argued that ads on both platforms were too small to include information about who paid for them.
“The fact that the ad is paid for is made clear by the use of the word ‘Sponsored’ in the top left-hand comer of the ad,” read the letter sent on behalf of Facebook.
Google was granted the exemption, and the vote to exempt Facebook was split. There was no further action after that, and Facebook did not implement any disclosures on political ads. But as far as Elias is concerned, the rules would not have stopped Russia from targeting American voters on Facebook, he told the Times.
“The Russians were willing to break the law to help Donald Trump,” he said. “I doubt the [Federal Election Commission] disclaimers were going to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
The Honest Ads Act would require internet companies like Facebook and Google to create public digital records of political ads purchased on their platforms, which would include information about who bought the ads, how much they paid, and what audiences they were targeted towards. It would also require that the company make “reasonable efforts” to ensure that the ads aren’t purchased by a foreign national.
Last month, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a statement broadcast on Facebook Live that the company would start to take political advertising more seriously.
“We’re going to make political advertising more transparent,” he said, and added that the company will require advertisers to disclose who paid for each ad. But he didn’t say whether that information will be publicly available in aggregate, or whether the amount advertisers spent on the ads will be public.