Honest Ads Bill Creates Online Political Ad Public File

Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) have taken the wraps off the final draft of the Honest Ads Act, the bill aimed at keeping Russian election-meddlers off the political ad roles of Web sites like Facebook, Twitter and Google, and harmonize the disclosures of legitimate political ads across all platforms.

The bill, which was introduced Thursday (Oct. 19) would amend the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA) to include paid internet and digital ads in the definition of electioneering communications, which would trigger disclosure requirements; require digital platforms with at least 50 million monthly viewers to maintain a public file of all those electioneering communications by anyone or groups who spends more than $500 for political ads on their platform; require the file to include ad targets, views generated, rates and contact info; and require online platforms to "ensure that foreign individuals and entities are not purchasing political advertisements in order to influence the American electorate."

They were joined on the bill by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

A House version is being introduced by Reps. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) and Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), according to the senators.

“Our bipartisan Honest Ads Act extends transparency and disclosure to political ads in the digital space," said Warner, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russian influence in the election. "At the end of the day, it is not too much to ask that our most innovative digital companies work with us by exercising additional judgment and providing some transparency.”

"“First and foremost this is an issue of national security," said Klobuchar. "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. We have to secure our election systems and we have to do it now – the next election is only 383 days away."

“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, which has been a loud voice for campaign reforms, including heightened disclosures for political ads.

“We hope this bill, which merits serious consideration, catalyzes an overdue public debate and substantive action in Congress and the Federal Election Commission to create platform parity for political ad disclosure across TV, radio, print and Internet companies. Opacity by design is not an acceptable status quo for the technology giants that shape public knowledge and discourse with limited accountability. We’re excited to see bipartisan support for more transparency and accountability online.”

Sunlight has pushed for more accountability for broadcast and cable political ads as well, including asking the FCC to refine its rules so the actual funders of campaigns, rather than just the PAC's they funnel the funds through, would be identified.

"Whether paid political ads are broadcast on TV or displayed online, the American people deserve to know the true source of the funds used to influence our elections," said Liz Kennedy of the Center for American Progress. "The Honest Ads Act would apply some of the same basic disclosure requirements to online ads as it does to television ads—and importantly, it would require social media companies to take reasonable steps to prevent foreign influence in our elections. At a time when foreign adversaries are exploiting our divisions to subvert America’s democracy, we applaud this common-sense bipartisan leadership on this important issue."

“We are ready to work with the authors of both the House and Senate political advertising bills to consider new approaches to effective transparency,” said Interactive Advertising Bureau SVP Dave Grimaldi. “Preventing interference in U.S. elections is essential, and our industry is committed to sensible reform that achieves that goal while preserving free expression.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.