Tech giants rush to self-regulate amid scrutiny

Tech giants rush to self-regulate amid scrutiny
© Getty

Facebook, Twitter and other social media giants are racing to implement their own solutions to foreign election influence, a move that could help them avoid congressional intervention.

The companies have offered public support for some congressional proposals and will send representatives to testify at a hearing on Russian election influence next week. But a trade association representing them has argued against legislation.

Facebook and Twitter both recently announced internal ad policy overhauls aimed at increasing transparency and preventing foreign actors from manipulating their platform.

Facebook’s new attempts at self-regulation came amid the public relations crisis the company endured after it revealed that Russian actors purchased 3,000 political ads on its platform around the time of the 2016 presidential election. The attempts also came as lawmakers like Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerTrump-Russia collusion did affect an American election — the one in 2018 The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Pass USMCA Coalition - Mueller report is huge win for President Trump Trump, Congress brace for Mueller findings MORE (D-Va.) began to call for new digital ad regulations.

ADVERTISEMENT

 Twitter and Facebook are officially open to congressional proposals. Twitter has thanked lawmakers for raising the issues covered in the Honest Ads Act, but it doesn’t have a stance on the substance of the bill.

Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) President Randall Rothenberg, whose trade group counts Facebook, Twitter and Google as members, says self-regulation is the best solution to foreign election influence on the platforms.

“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,” Rothenberg said at a House Oversight Committee hearing earlier this week. 

Rothenberg also criticized the Honest Ads Act, a bill introduced last week by Warner and Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharFCC claims on broadband access under scrutiny Senate gears up for Green New Deal vote Overnight Energy: Green New Deal vote set to test Dem unity | Renewables on track to phase out coal, study finds | EPA chief reportedly recuses himself from mine review MORE (D-Minn.).

The act would force digital platforms with 50 million or more unique monthly users to provide data on campaigns that spend at least $500 on political ads a year. Such platforms are currently exempt from similar regulations imposed on TV and radio outlets.

“One of the problems I have with the Honest Ads Act is it’s placing the burden on smaller publishers that don’t have the financial wherewithal to shoulder that burden,” Rothenberg said.

While the IAB includes tech giants among its members, it also includes a number of smaller companies that may be influencing its position. Klobuchar told reporters that the legislation did not have the support of the technology industry.

The Internet Association, another trade group with a smaller pool of members that include Facebook, Google and Twitter, has not released a position on the bill. 

Warner has called for politics ads on social media to include disclosures, as political ads in other forms of media do. 

“As much as I dislike Citizens United, at least someone can look at the TV ads being run for or against somebody,” Warner said in September. “Why those rules don't apply to social media companies?”

Around that time, 20 House and Senate Democrats wrote a letter to the Federal Election Commission asking for new guidelines on the matter.

In another attempt to regulate its platform, Twitter unveiled an ad policy overhaul on Tuesday aimed at increasing ad transparency and preventing foreign actors from taking advantage of its platform.

But lawmakers are skeptical that self-regulation alone will be enough to stop the threat of foreign actors taking advantage of Facebook and Twitter.

Warner and Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Pass USMCA Coalition - Dems look for traction following Barr-Mueller findings Barr faces political storm over Mueller report The Memo: Mueller findings boost Trump 2020 hopes MORE (Calif.), the top Democrat in the House Intelligence Committee, praised the decision as a good first step but said that alone the changes are not enough.

Klobuchar also praised Twitter’s move, but gave a more pointed response.

“This announcement is no substitute for updating our laws and passing the Honest Ads Act, which would ensure all major online platforms are held to the same standards in place for broadcasters — including disclosure requirements of advertisements for issues of national legislative importance,” she said in a statement on Tuesday.

During a press conference announcing the Honest Ads Act last week, Klobuchar railed against only using self-regulation.

“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,” she said. 

Despite the rush to self-regulate the platforms amid heightened scrutiny, some observers believe tech companies will eventually get behind legislation.

“There will be plenty of back-and-forth on transparency legislation and the tech companies do have some concerns they are working with lawmakers on,” said one tech industry source. “But at the end of the day, by and large, they'll be supportive — they know they need to be.”

Experts are also skeptical of self-regulation.

“They are only now doing this because they got caught. If they wanted a chance of self-regulation, the best chance of that would have been a year ago when they first started being suspicious of who was using their platform and how they were using it,” says Katherine Haenschen, a professor at Virginia Tech who researches social media and politics.

Firms say that they only became aware of Russian activity this past summer, but some are skeptical of such statements.

“I think they didn’t want to say anything until they had no choice but to talk. That doesn’t give me confidence that in the next wave that they’ll be forthcoming about it. The thing with the election is that you don’t get a do over,” Haenschen said. 

Lawmakers will have a chance to more closely scrutinize the companies’ ad practices on Wednesday, when general counsels from Facebook, Twitter and Google testify before the Senate and House Intelligence committees probing Russian use of their platforms.