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Here’s how U.S. lawmakers want to regulate political ads on Facebook, Google and Twitter

An early look at the Honest Ads Act by Sens. Mark Warner, Amy Klobuchar and John McCain

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Sens. Mark Warner (L) and Amy Klobuchar (R)
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A trio of top Senate lawmakers is commencing a new push today to regulate the political ads that appear on Facebook, Google and Twitter, as Congress seeks to thwart the Russian government from spreading disinformation ahead of another U.S. election.

The new bill is called the Honest Ads Act, and it’s the brainchild of Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Amy Klobuchar. In recent days, they’ve also enlisted critical Republican support from Sen. John McCain. Their measure, in short, would require tech giants for the first time to make copies of political ads — and information about the audience those ads targeted — available for public inspection.

The proposal arrives as congressional lawmakers continue to probe the extent to which Russian-aligned agents sought to co-opt Facebook, Google and Twitter before and after the 2016 presidential race.

Each one of those major online platforms already has found some evidence of the Kremlin’s meddling — and in many cases, government-backed trolls sought to sow social unrest through divisive, misleading advertisements that touched on racial and religious issues.

To that end, the new Senate bill — obtained by Recode before its official introduction on Thursday — seeks to impose fresh regulations on any website, web application, search engine, social network or ad network that has 50 million or more unique U.S. visitors in a majority of months in a given year.

For campaigns that seek to spend more than $500 in total on political ads, tech and ad platforms would have to make new data about the ads available for public viewing. That includes copies of ads, as well as information about the organizations that purchased them, the audiences the ads might have targeted and how much they cost.

The new online ad disclosure rules would cover everything from promoted tweets and sponsored content to search and display advertising. And it includes ads on behalf of a candidate as well as those focused on legislative issues of national importance, according to a copy of the bill.

To Warner, at least, the language encompasses some of the roughly 3,000 ads purchased by Russian agents on Facebook ahead of Election Day. Many of those ads sought to stoke tensions around issues like Black Lives Matter or gun control, even if they didn’t mention a specific candidate. And a “majority” of them would “fall into the category where they would be retained for an individual to view the content,” Warner said.

Many of the proposed rules mirror some of the disclosure requirements that already apply to broadcasters, who must make copies of political ads that run on their airwaves available for public viewing. In that vein, federal lawmakers also seek to ensure that political ads on Facebook, Google and Twitter must have clear and conspicuous disclaimers saying who purchased them. Tiny font isn’t enough, at least in the eyes of Warner and his allies.

Lastly, tech giants would have to employ “reasonable efforts” to ensure that foreign governments and their agents — from Russia or elsewhere — are not purchasing political ads on their platforms.

“Russia will keep trying to divide our country,” Klobuchar said at a press conference at the Capitol on Thursday. “They’ve tried it once, and they’ll do it again. That’s why we’ve introduced this bill.”

Within the tech industry, the Honest Ads Act is likely to provoke a mixed response, as companies look to harden their platforms against misinformation while avoiding any new, onerous regulations. Facebook, for one, has has promised to hire roughly 1,000 new employees to review political ads before they appear on the site.

“We are reviewing the legislation and look forward to further engagement with the sponsors,” said the Internet Association, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group for Facebook, Google, Twitter and other Web giants. “This is an important issue that deserves attention and the internet industry is working with legislators in both the House and Senate interested in political advertising legislation.”

Others in the tech industry, however, warmly welcomed the effort.

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, the bill might struggle to advance. Not all federal lawmakers share Warner’s interest in Russia’s activities on social media, while Republicans generally have dismissed federal probes into Kremlin interference during the 2016 presidential election.

The addition of McCain as a co-sponsor, however, at least serves as an important first step in bringing more GOP backers on board. House lawmakers on Thursday introduced their own version of the bill, too.

Still, the early legislative efforts set the stage for perhaps an awkward confrontation when Facebook, Google and Twitter dispatch their executives to testify at two hearings before the House and Senate Intelligence Committees on November 1. Warner is the top Democrat on the Senate’s panel.

Facebook plans to send Colin Stretch to the twin hearings, the company confirmed on Thursday. From Twitter, it’ll be acting General Counsel Sean Edgett making the trip to Washington, D.C., a spokeswoman said. And Google much later acknowledged that its general counsel, Kent Walker, would appear before House and Senate lawmakers.

“I think that they got the message,” Warner said of the tech industry, “but I think the real proof in the pudding will be, come to the hearing on November 1. These companies are going to have to testify before members of the United States Senate and answer these questions.”

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