Modern Regulations Must Match Growth in Political Ads

Facing a projected and staggering 2,539 percent increase in online political advertising this year over 2014 levels, the Federal Election Commission is looking at modernizing its ad disclosure rules for the new digital news landscape.

During a public hearing that spanned two days last week, Paul S. Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation at Common Cause, pushed the commission to apply full disclaimer requirements to all digital political ads, matching the familiar “paid for by” disclaimers that accompany printed or televised ads.

Full disclaimer requirements are supported by nearly 40 years of Supreme Court precedent and are essential for protecting our democracy, Ryan argued. He testified on behalf of 25,000 Common Cause members and supporters..

In March, the FEC published and invited public comment on alternative proposals for new online ad disclaimers. The commission received more than 160,000 written comments on the proposed rules, including comments on Twitter and Facebook. The commission then conducted a public hearing on the proposals on June 26-27, which featured testimony from Ryan and 17 other panelists.

FEC Chair Caroline Hunter suggested she’s looking to find a “clear, objective, and administrable standard” for communication disclaimers. The commission has been gridlocked since 2006 on updating regulations for disclosure information; it is widely considered the federal government’s most dysfunctional agency.

In addition to the FEC rulemaking that’s underway, there have been efforts in both houses of Congress to strengthen online disclosure requirements. The Honest Ads Act, and the DISCLOSE Act of 2018, which was introduced last week, aim to enhance transparency and accountability for online political ads. These bills would require the purchasers and publishers of such ads to reveal the individuals and groups supplying the money. The goal is to promote the integrity of American democracy and national security by improving disclosure requirements.

Given the exponential rise in online advertisements, it is extremely important that action be taken. We hope the commissioners and Congress can come to an understanding to create communication disclaimer standards that are enforced regularly and are adaptable to future changes in advertising.

Jane Hood and Kiera Solomon are Common Cause interns.