Facebook hearings should force Congress to address meddling

Facebook hearings should force Congress to address meddling
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Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergHillicon Valley: Trump's ban on TikTok, WeChat in spotlight | NASA targeted by foreign hackers | Instagram accused of spying in lawsuit The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by The Air Line Pilots Association - Trump contradicts CDC director on vaccine, masks Hillicon Valley: DOJ indicts Chinese, Malaysian hackers accused of targeting over 100 organizations | GOP senators raise concerns over Oracle-TikTok deal | QAnon awareness jumps in new poll MORE will testify before Congress this week about his global social media platform and security of the user data it collects, after bipartisan calls in the House and Senate for him to do so. This is a meaningful first step in the direction of transparency, but it does not address the issue of foreign interference in our elections.

The steady drip of news stories about how Cambridge Analytica harvested data without consent and used it in the 2016 campaign is a reminder of how digital loopholes allow any number of bad actors, foreign or domestic, to secretly influence U.S. elections.

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Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in both the House and Senate that would close those loopholes and pull digital political ads into the sunlight. During his media tour mea culpa in response to these news stories, Zuckerberg has specifically endorsed a bill called the Honest Ads Act. (Just a few weeks earlier, IBM backed the legislation.)

In light of all this, we have just one question: What is Congress waiting for? The Honest Ads Act has yet to even receive a hearing, and our country is no closer today to shoring up the vulnerabilities that were exploited by the Russians in 2016 than they were last election cycle.

With clear warnings from National Intelligence Director Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsFBI chief says Russia is trying to interfere in election to undermine Biden The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by The Air Line Pilots Association - Trump, Biden renew push for Latino support Former Intel chief had 'deep suspicions' that Putin 'had something on Trump': book MORE in February that Russia will try to interfere in the 2018 midterms with social media ads, Congress should be protecting our elections from foreign interference. The Constitution gives Americans a right to govern ourselves. Exercising that right by strengthening our disclosure laws would help detect and deter foreign interference.

This is a critical national security issue. How we respond will determine whether we really are united as a country or whether foreign adversaries will be able to use the same game plan to sow even more discord.

Imagine if Vladimir Putin, listed atop a “Do Not Enter” list, is seen driving up to the gate of our house, and we buzz him right in without taking the obvious step of telling the security guard he must ask for visitors’ names. That is what is happening today and will continue to happen without congressional action.

If bad actors know that security is in place that will expose their illegal activity, they will be more likely to avoid running ads in elections in the first place. Otherwise, the “Do Not Enter” list, which bans foreign nationals from spending in U.S. elections, is meaningless.

Let’s be clear: There is no dispute over whether foreign actors meddled in the 2016 elections, and ultimately, we’ll never know whether Russia’s interference made a difference in the outcome. Maintaining the sovereignty of our elections is a critical national security issue.

There are also reasons for optimism. The latest legislation aimed at funding the government includes a directive that the Federal Election Commission report to Congress how it enforces the ban on foreign campaign contributions and expenditures in elections, and how it will in the future.

Additionally, in a preview of the House Select Committee on Intelligence recommendations released recently, Republicans say they are calling on Congress and the executive branch to improve “campaign finance transparency.”

But this isn’t enough. Russia managed to spread paid messages on social media because of legal loopholes that allow digital ads to avoid transparency requirements. This is now the question: What are we going to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again?

The bipartisan Honest Ads Act brings our disclosure rules into the 21st century by extending the requirements that already exist for television and radio ads to the digital ads that voters see on computers and smartphones. The bill gives voters, journalists and law enforcement officers important tools to detect illegal foreign activity.

It does this by requiring the major sellers of online ads, like Twitter, Facebook and Google, to keep a complete record of the political advertisements by each purchaser. This information would include a digital copy of the ad, a description of the audience the ad targets, the name of the candidate or legislative issue to which the ad refers, and the contact information of the purchaser.

The bill also ensures that online platforms make reasonable efforts to ensure that existing laws prohibiting foreigners from influencing U.S. elections through campaign spending are upheld. We should work together to protect our democracy from foreign meddling. It should be easy to come to a consensus around a solution that says the next time an intruder drives up to our gate, the security guard must at least ask for their name.

An estimated $1.4 billion was spent on digital ads in the 2016 elections. It is a safe bet that number will continue to rise. As campaigns change to reflect the digital age in which we live, so too must our laws. Congress must hold hearings and pass the Honest Ads Act. The security of our nation and integrity of our elections depend on it.

Trevor Potter is president of the Campaign Legal Center and a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission. Zach Wamp served eight terms in the U.S. House of Representatives for Tennessee from 1995 to 2011. He is now the co-chair of the ReFormers Caucus at Issue One.