Can We Truly Make Ads Honest, Or Is This More Fake News?

A new bill introduced in the U.S. Senate by Senators Mark Warner, Amy Klobuchar and John McCain aims to put online political advertising on a level playing field with the traditional mediums of television, radio, and print. House Resolution 4077, also known as the “Honest Ads Act,” comes as a direct response to the investigation of Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election, which shook public confidence in the accuracy of information disseminated online on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. If passed, the bill would amend the definition of “electioneering communication” in the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 to include “satellite, paid Internet, or paid digital communication.” This would in turn require digital platforms that have 50 million or more viewers to keep and maintain a public file of all electioneering communications (advertisements) purchased by a person, or group, who spends more than a total of $500 on advertisements for that platform. This public file would consist of information such as: a digital copy of the advertisement, a description of the audience targeted by the advertisement, the number of views it got, when it was first and last displayed, when it was first and last published, the rates charged, and the name and contact information of the purchaser. In addition to the public file, the final section of the bill requires all platforms (broadcast stations, cable providers, online platforms, etc.) to make “reasonable efforts” to ensure that advertisements are not purchased directly or indirectly by foreign nationals.

Many are praising the bill as a much needed first step in regulating online platforms even if the bill is not a comprehensive plan.

In holding online platforms to the same stringent accountability and transparency standards as the other, more traditional media platforms, the Honest Ads Act will hopefully help transport American campaign finance law into the modern age of the Internet.

Marc Rotenberg, the president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center remarked that the bill is a “good step in the direction of restoring trust in democratic institutions. . . . The Honest Ads Act currently holds to account Internet advertisers without infringing on the rights of actual Internet users.”

Detractors of the bill worry that it is nothing more than a superficial set of regulations that do little to ensure transparency in political advertisements published online. Not only would the maintenance of a public file of every piece of content be incredibly burdensome, but also it is hard to see how anyone other than the federal government or researchers would find this data useful. No member of the general public is going to spend time combing through vast lists of online advertisements to analyze marketing tactics and patterns. Even worse than that, the bill’s requirement that platforms make “reasonable efforts” is arguably just another way of saying that online platforms do not have to take responsibility for where their advertising content comes from. Foreign nationals can easily bypass “reasonable efforts” to remain anonymous when purchasing advertising content. Virtual private networks allow users to work through United States based IP addresses and payment can be done anonymously through services such as Paypal. By setting up fake accounts, foreign nationals can avoid detection by online platforms, run their advertisements, and have a copy of that advertisement stored onto the public filing system where it will be eventually forgotten.

In the end, only time will tell and we will not know how these regulations work unless the Honest Ads Act passes. While it does have its shortcomings, certainly some foundational regulation from which we can build upon would help the restore public trust and allow those who consume this online content to sort out the real news from the fake news.