GOP, industry skeptical of new rules for online political ads

Greg Nash

Republicans and the advertising industry at a hearing Tuesday criticized proposals to expand disclosure rules on online political ads amid revelations Russian actors used social media platforms to influence the 2016 election.

Randall Rothenberg, president and CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, told lawmakers on the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Information Technology that new rules would unduly burden digital publishers.

“One of the problems I have with the Honest Ads Act is its placing the burden on smaller publishers that don’t have the financial wherewithal to shoulder that burden,” he said, referring to legislation offered in the Senate that would impose new regulations on web companies.

In the upper chamber, Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) have offered The Honest Ads Act, which would force digital platforms with 50 million or more unique users a month to provide data on campaigns that spend at least $500 on political ads a year. Such platforms are currently exempt from similar regulations which are imposed on TV and radio outlets.

But Rothenberg said those restrictions were too stringent.

“[The Honest Ads Act] would include companies like Hearst, Conde Nast, Vox, Vice Media, basically a lot of newspapers and media that are not in a position to take on financial burdens in reporting,” Rothenberg said. “50 million unique users in the internet world is actually not a lot.”

Republicans also expressed skepticism.

Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-Mich.) blasted the idea of holding companies like Facebook and Google to the same rules as other media over political ads.


“On the internet post, the provider, the intermediary is not responsible for it. They didn’t write it. They didn’t hire them, they didn’t determine who they are, yet you want to hold them to the same standard as your newspaper, which is an entirely different format,” he said.

Mitchell said new rules would infringe on free speech.

“The idea that we’re going to allow regulators, a group of bureaucrats, to determine what we will be able to see in terms of social media or other formats offends me, and I will certainly oppose that in whatever way I can,” he said.

Rothenberg told lawmakers self-regulation would be preferable.

“There is a role for government regulation to assure the safety and security of consumers and the economy alike. But government alone will not create greater transparency and safety in digital advertising environments. Real reform, durable reform, can only happen when the digital advertising community adopts tougher, tighter controls for who is putting what on — and underneath — its sites,” he said.

But Democrats have been skeptical of allowing advertisers to self-regulate. While unveiling their bill last week, Warner and Klobuchar said they welcomed industry efforts, but it wasn’t enough.

“The problem is, it has to cover everyone. You can’t just have a few companies doing it voluntarily. You also want to have it be in our laws,” Klobuchar said at the time. “I just cannot justify as a U.S. senator that you would apply one set of laws to one media outlet — to TV, radio and print — and then apply another set to another.”

Supporters of the proposed rules also made their case at the hearing.

“Platforms may not put enough effort into implementation or enforcement, or may apply rules inconsistently across users,” said Ian Vandewalker, senior counsel at the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. “And voluntary efforts can be abandoned as soon as a scandal blows over.”

It’s unclear if Klobuchar and Warner’s bill has enough support in the Senate or the House.

“I don’t necessarily know that the Honest Ads Act is the solution to this problem,” Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), chairman of the Information Technology subcommittee, told reporters after the hearing.

“Legislation is introduced all the time that goes nowhere, but I think my colleagues on both sides of the aisle want to make sure that we do everything we can to defend our liberal — “little i” — institutions against foreign actors.”

The Senate bill has bipartisan support. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is also a backer.

Democrats painted the bill as a necessary national security measure.

“The Russian government exploited these loopholes. In the 2016 election, Russians were able to take advantage of campaign finance rules and launch effective misinformation campaigns,” said Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.) at Tuesday’s hearing. “I am confident that we can prevent meddling by Russia and other foreign states in our elections, while protecting the First Amendment rights of Americans.”

Tags Amy Klobuchar John McCain Mark Warner
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