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Google asked the U.S. government to consider new rules of the road for online political ads

The FEC is weighing new rules in light of Russia’s 2016 election meddling.

Twitter, Facebook and Google executives testify at a hearing on Capitol Hill
Twitter, Facebook and Google executives testify at a hearing on Capitol Hill
Alex Wong / Getty

Google is urging U.S. election regulators to consider more explicit rules around online political advertisements, perhaps even a ban on foreign entities from purchasing election ads focused on some issues, not just candidates.

The comments — filed with the Federal Election Commission on Thursday — also appear to call for greater clarity as to how the search giant and its tech peers should handle the likes of RT, the Russia-backed news organization that has been blasted by the U.S. government for spreading propaganda online.

Google’s submission to the FEC comes as the company, its counterparts like Facebook and Twitter and their regulators in the nation’s capital begin debating whether new rules are necessary to prevent the Russian government and other foreign malefactors from meddling in U.S. politics again.

For now, though, Facebook hasn’t yet filed with the FEC — but it is expected to do so before the agency closes the window for public comments later this month. The original deadline was Thursday, but the FEC recently extended it.

And Twitter did share its views with the U.S. government late on Thursday. Its comments essentially call on the agency to be mindful of its character limits in proffering any new rules, without delving into the details.

During the course of the 2016 presidential election, Kremlin trolls flooded Facebook with thousands of misleading posts and ads while commanding 2,782 accounts to spread disinformation on Twitter, all with the apparent goal of sowing social and political unrest around controversial issues, like immigration and race. A small number of similar ads appeared on Google, too.

To that end, some lawmakers in the U.S. Congress have proposed new legislation that would require internet companies to maintain a public file of all political ads they run, much like broadcasters currently must do.

Hoping to stave off that sort of regulation, meanwhile, some tech giants have responded by introducing more transparency checks of their own. Facebook, Google and Twitter each recently pledged they would make political ads easier to spot while providing more information about the audiences those ads target in the coming months.

And at the FEC, election regulators this year revived an old debate as to what, exactly, political advertisers have to disclose about their efforts to sway voters online. The agency began that debate in 2011, but technically never issued any disclosure rules targeting the tech industry, thanks in part to lobbying by companies like Facebook.

Under new circumstances, however, some in the tech industry are now seeking greater clarity.

In its filing with the FEC, Google sought to emphasize that it’s a bit different from its social-network peers. It allows political ads in search, on websites of publishers that participate in Google’s ad networks or on its platforms and apps like YouTube.

In the company’s estimation, the “majority of advertisers” on Google “self-impose some form of disclaimer.” Amid reports about Russia’s meddling, though, the company told the FEC it would require all election-related advertisements to use a pre-existing icon that, when hovered over, will detail why a viewer is seeing that ad in the first place.

But Google also told the agency it had to “modernize its disclaimer rule so that political committees and other organizations have clear notice regarding the disclaimers they are required to include with their internet communications.”

Meanwhile, Google suggested that Congress, the FEC and others issue new rules around foreign-bought ads purchased in the weeks before and after an election. To be sure, foreign nationals are banned from advertising in support or defense of a U.S. candidate. But many of the rules governing the ban don’t actually mention online ads — only broadcast and print.

With it, Google further appeared to be calling on the FEC to wade into whether that ban includes issues-focused ads that may not “express advocacy for or against a particular candidate.” In many cases, the ads purchased by Russian trolls during the 2016 presidential race on Facebook, for example, didn’t mention Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton — but rather divisive topics like Black Lives Matter and gay rights.

And Google also urged the U.S. government to clarify whether online ads and other content purchased or by lobbyists on behalf of a foreign power should include a disclaimer.

The phrasing sounds wonky, but the search giant seemed to be seeking clarity around RT, a news organization with deep ties to the Russian government. U.S. intelligence agencies have blasted RT as Kremlin propaganda, and its videos have been viewed on Google-owned YouTube millions of times — but at the moment there is no explicit disclaimer about its Russian origins.

In some ways, though, Google’s comments about RT strike at one of the most vexing challenges facing lawmakers and federal regulators. It’s not just ads, but free, organic content that Russian trolls published and shared online — tweets and posts and other material that at times even ended up in major U.S. newspapers and websites.

For its part, Twitter stressed it planned to publish more information about political ads on its platform. But its new efforts to highlight political ads with special indicators, the company said, only apply to those ads that touch on candidates — not political issues.

Twitter didn’t weigh in on other issues, like RT.

But the company did note that its newly doubled, 280-character limit — while allowing users to say and share more — still makes it difficult for advertisers to disclose more information in tweets themselves.

“In providing a brief summary of our own solutions for transparency and disclosure,” Twitter said, “we hope the FEC will take Twitter’s recently-adopted policies into account as it formulates any new requirements for the platform and its users, while also recognizing the limited and valuable space available for political advertisements run on Twitter.”

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