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Russia Investigation: Senators to Unveil Bill to Boost Disclosure of Online Political Ads

WASHINGTON — Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) introduced legislation on Thursday to require greater disclosure of the sources of online political ads, amid reports that Russian sources bought spots on Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms to influence the 2016 election.

Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) is co-sponsoring the legislation, giving it a bipartisan boost as lawmakers examine the use of social media by Russian sources during the campaign. The Senate Intelligence Committee is planning a Nov. 1 hearing on the issue, and has invited representatives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter to testify.

The legislation is called the Honest Ads Act, and it would require that political ads sold online be covered by the same rules as spots sold for TV, radio, and satellite play.

Their legislation would require that online platforms with more than 50 million monthly views keep a public file of the digital copy of the advertisement, a description of the audience the advertisement targets, the number of views generated, the dates and times of publication, the rates charged and the buyer’s contact information. It also requires that online platforms take all “reasonable efforts” to ensure foreign entities are not buying ads to try to influence the election.

It would apply to all entities that purchase more than $500 of political advertising in a cycle, and it would include spots about candidates and political issues.

The FCC maintains a public online file of political ad purchase on broadcast TV outlets. It’s unclear whether there will be a central repository for the ads on digital platforms.

Digital political advertisers also would be required to identify who paid for the spot within the ad, as is required in other media. The text of the proposed legislation is here.

At a press conference, Warner and Klobuchar talked of how Russian sources targeted social media platforms to influence opinion. Warner said that the foreign agents wanted to “spread misinformation and to sow division.”

“Russia will keep trying to divide our country,” Klobuchar said. “They tried it once and they will do it again.”

They said that the sources of the advertisements are a mystery because laws have not kept up with technology.

Facebook announced earlier this month that it would hire 1,000 new employees to monitor ads, but it is likely to face additional scrutiny at the upcoming hearing. The company has confirmed that a representative will testify.

Last month, Facebook said it had identified about 3,000 ads linked to Russian sources, representing about $100,000 in ad spending from June 2015 to May 2017. The ads appear to have come from a Russian entity known as the Internet Research Agency, according to Facebook.

Erin Egan, vice president of U.S. Public Policy for Facebook, said that they “stand with lawmakers in their effort to achieve transparency in political advertising. We have already announced the steps Facebook will take on our own and we look forward to continuing the conversation with lawmakers as we work toward a legislative solution.”

The company turned over the ads to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian influence in the 2016 election, and any possible coordination or collusion with campaigns. Facebook also gave the spots to congressional committees investigating Russian influence. Warner is the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Facebook also outlined other measures it says it will take to try to boost disclosure, including requiring more documentation on the source of political spots.

Similar legislation also was introduced in the House by Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) and Mike Coffman (R-Colo.).

Michael Beckerman, president and CEO of the Internet Association, said in a statement that “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.”

But one group focused on tech policy, Tech Freedom, which has generally advocated for light-touch in regulation, said that the $500 threshold for compliance would be of such a broad scope that it could have “chilling effects” on speech.

The organization’s president, Berin Szóka, said that the Internet has been a platform for the testing of political messages. The bill “would require public logging of every message tested, no matter how small the test group, if the total ad buy in year exceeded $500. That will obviously chill the use of the Internet as a cost-effective way to test potentially delicate messages. Making it harder to identify offensive messages could have the perverse effect of making America’s already-toxic political discourse even worse.”

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