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Tech titans support more political ad transparency — but aren’t yet embracing a new bill by the U.S. Senate

Here’s what companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter are saying about bills like the Honest Ads Act

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) looks on as Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) stands at a podium to announce legislation to prevent foreign interference in elections Drew Angerer / Getty

Here’s what the tech industry says it wants if the U.S. Congress tries to write a new law about online political ads: Rules that are clear, apply to everyone, emphasize disclosure but not too much, and certainly don’t inhibit free speech.

And here’s what that really means: The biggest brands in Silicon Valley aren’t exactly ready to embrace a new, bipartisan bill in the U.S. Senate that would subject them to a whole host of tough regulations.

In just a few hours, three tech giants — Facebook, Google and Twitter — are set to appear before the first of three congressional committees that are probing Russia’s attempts to spread disinformation on their platforms. When they do, they’ll face criticism from lawmakers who believe a new law is necessary to stop Kremlin trolls from trying to stoke social and political unrest through ads and other content.

Anticipating that, the web’s Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group, the Internet Association, is issuing something of a blueprint for policymakers this morning. The organization accepts there’s a greater need for more transparency around online political ads — but it subtly hints it isn’t a fan of everything that’s been floated on Capitol Hill.

At issue is the so-called Honest Ads Act. Its authors — Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Mark Warner, and Republican Sen. John McCain — hope to require internet companies for the first time to disclose more about their advertisers and store copies of all political ads for the public to view.

In its blueprint, though, the Internet Association only said it supports requiring “all ad platforms to disclose information publicly about the political ads they carry.” The lobbying organization stopped short of endorsing the specific idea of an online public file that encompasses a broad array of their ads.

Meanwhile, the Senate’s bipartisan plan would cover ads about office-seekers as well as so-called issues ads, which touch on major, national debates, perhaps around health care, immigration or gun control.

But the Internet Association argued that Congress should “improve transparency and disclosure of online election advertising without creating requirements that would discourage legitimate stakeholders from actively engaging in the political process or limit political speech.” It also urged them against “vague definitions” of what constitutes an ad in the first place. And while the group didn’t actually say anything about issues ads, its proposal appeared to suggest that it doesn’t support such regulation.

Otherwise, the tech group urges Congress to “consider measures that could strengthen the government’s existing authority to prevent foreign interference in U.S. elections.” Even as it supports greater disclosure, it said it would oppose legislation “requiring that personal information about individuals who purchase advertising be disclosed publicly.”

And the Internet Association definitely doesn’t want to be held legally responsible for what the ads include. “Proposals that would hold platforms liable for advertisers’ claims could discourage platforms from carrying ads from individual citizens or legitimate groups that aren’t well known or established,” the organization said.

"Internet Association members are committed to working with policymakers and other stakeholders on legislation that will improve transparency and stop bad actors while protecting privacy, free speech, and internet-enabled political debate,” said its leader, Michael Beckerman, in a statement.

If anything, the Internet Association’s efforts Tuesday speak to the tough task ahead for Silicon Valley in trying to shape fast-moving legislation on Capitol Hill as well as the Federal Election Commission. The FEC, for its part, recently reopened its own proceeding around online ad disclosure. Already, companies like Facebook, Google, Twitter and others have committed their powerful, well-heeled lobbying armies in the nation’s capital toward staving off the most onerous regulations.

Meanwhile, some of the industry’s other lobbying organizations — which also represent Facebook, Google and Twitter — have argued openly against really any intervention by Congress at all. Last week, for example, the Interactive Advertising Bureau told Congress that the industry itself is best equipped to handle the problem on its own.

In recent weeks, tech companies certainly have tried to do that. Facebook, Google and Twitter each have promised to improve the way they handle and vet political ads while making them available for public inspection. They are set to communicate some of those changes to Congress beginning Tuesday, when the first of three committees holds its hearing on Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

As for specific legislation, though? It depends on what it looks like.

"The internet industry is engaged with all stakeholders to bring greater transparency to online election advertising and ensure foreign actors cannot use internet platforms to disrupt elections," Beckerman said.

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