FEC Agrees to Consider Disclosure Rule for Online Political Ads

Posted by Dale Eisman on November 16, 2017


This is a story we shouldn’t need to celebrate, but it’s so unusual that we do.

The Federal Election Commission, arguably government’s most dysfunctional agency, actually did something this morning. By a 5-0 vote, the commissioners decided to draft and debate a regulation that would require online political advertisers to reveal themselves in their ads.

The commission’s decision to begin a rulemaking process follows an outpouring of citizen demands for disclosure that has repeatedly shut down the FEC’s email server. Nearly 18,000 Common Cause members and supporters filed comments with the agency on the issue last week. In total, more than 150,000 Americans spoke out in comments and petitions to the agency – an FEC rulemaking record.

Real action to adopt and implement a disclosure rule is months away, if it comes at all. But for now, citizens have scored a small and for the FEC a rare victory and provided a reminder that public pressure can still make a difference in the formation of public policy.

“Americans expect and deserve to know who is bankrolling the political ads that follow them around the internet,” said Common Cause President Karen Hobert Flynn. The commission “needs to follow through and pass rules with teeth that effectively require disclosure of who pays for online political ads,” she added.

While the FEC weighs a potential rule, U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-MN; Mark Warner, D-VA; and John McCain, R-AZ, are pushing their congressional colleagues to pass the Honest Ads Act, a bill that would write an online ad disclosure requirement into federal law.

Broadcast political ads typically end with a “paid for by…” tagline required by the Federal Communications Commission. Though federal law requires disclosure of the “true identity” of individuals or groups paying for those ads, the commission applies a loose standard for compliance that permits groups placing the ads to conceal the identities of the donors who provided the money to finance them.

Disclosure requirements also are in place for political ads sent through the U.S. Mail, but there is no disclosure requirement for online ads.

Pressure for online ad disclosure rules follows reports that thousands of online ads and social media posts by Russian government-backed “bots” reached more than 125 million Americans on Facebook alone last year. Some of those ads and posts promoted then-candidate Donald Trump or attacked Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton; others disseminated a wide variety of phony “news” items, apparently to sow discord among Americans on a variety of issues or undermine public trust in the electoral process.

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Office: Common Cause National

Issues: Money in Politics

Tags: Disclosure

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