Congress Must Protect Our Right to Know Who Is Trying to Influence Us

Congress Must Protect Our Right to Know Who Is Trying to Influence Us

Facebook's announcement this month that it's changing the way it handles political advertising is good news but no cause for celebration.

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Facebook’s announcement this month that it’s changing the way it handles political advertising is good news but no cause for celebration.

Stung by stories about how the site sold political advertising to Russian interests last year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has unveiled a self-regulation regimen that may quiet the social network’s critics and placate lawmakers alarmed about hidden foreign meddling in U.S. elections.

But while Zuckerberg’s maneuver may be good for Facebook’s bottom line, it falls far short of what Americans need to protect our elections. Rather than placating Congress and the public, it should spark the passage of comprehensive and long overdue legislation requiring full disclosure of the people, businesses and groups using online ads to influence our votes.

There’s a critical principle at stake here, one too important to our democracy to be entrusted to any private entity: the right of every American to know who is trying to influence our elections and public policy.

Our laws already require disclosure of the people and groups behind some of the political ads we receive in the mail or over the internet, as well as those we see on television, hear on the radio and read in our newspapers and magazines. Candidates must personally vouch on the air for TV and radio ads placed by their campaign committees.

Unfortunately, however, there are plenty of gaps in the disclosure requirements. Conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity and liberal organizations like the House Majority PAC must put their names on the ads they sponsor, but the money that pays for the ads may be funneled to them through other nonprofit groups that are allowed to hide their donors.

In the case of online political advertising, Facebook itself sought a formal opinion from the Federal Election Commission in 2011 that ads on its site are exempt from the “paid for by” disclaimer requirements in current law. The FEC deadlocked on Facebook’s request, and partisan gridlock at the commission has blocked the adoption of much-needed regulations that would make clear the applicability of longstanding disclosure laws to new digital media.

Reform-minded public officials like former FEC Chair Ann Ravel and organizations like Common Cause have been trying for years to tighten the disclosure rules. As she noted in an essay published this week, Ravel warned nearly three years ago that Vladimir Putin would try to meddle in U.S. elections. Her attempt to launch an FEC rule-making process to deal with the problem was blocked by the commission’s Republican members amid hysterical cries from conservative pundits that Ravel was out to stifle free  speech.

Frustrated by the FEC’s dysfunction, Ravel left the commission earlier this year. But the unfolding story of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential race has prompted two senators, Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn, and Mark Warner, D-Va., to take up her fight.

Klobuchar and Warner circulated a letter last week asking their colleagues in both parties to support a bill that would – in their words – “formalize, and expand, the transparency commitments Facebook has made.”

Their proposal, which has not yet been formally introduced, would require Facebook and other digital platforms with 1 million or more users to maintain public files of all ads placed by individuals and groups spending $10,000 or more on political advertising. The files, which would be available for press and public inspection on the internet, would include the ads involved, a description of the users for whom they were targeted, the number of views, times and dates of publication, rates charged and – of course – the identities of the purchasers.

The bill would also require Facebook and other digital companies to “make reasonable efforts to ensure that electioneering communications are not purchased by a foreign national, directly or indfirectly.

The outline provided by Klobuchar and Warner to their colleagues is encouraging, and I hope the legislative proposal will be given thoughtful review. As Zuckerberg and his colleagues implement their internal checks on political advertising, they’d do well to put their considerable muscle behind such legislation.

Quick action is critical. The 2018 midterm elections are just over 13 months away, and we can be sure Putin will be only too happy to exploit our vulnerabilities.

Karen Hobert Flynn is president of Common Cause.