DC eyes tighter reg­u­la­tions on Face­book and Google as con­cern grows

The Guardian Australia - - Technology - Ben Ja­cobs in Washington

Ev­ery time a tele­vi­sion sta­tion sells a po­lit­i­cal ad, a record is en­tered into a public file say­ing who bought the ad­ver­tise­ment and how much money they spent.

In con­trast, when Face­book or Google sells a po­lit­i­cal ad, there is no public record of that sale. That sit­u­a­tion is of grow­ing con­cern to politi­cians and leg­is­la­tors in Washington as dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing be­comes an in­creas­ingly cen­tral part of Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns. Dur­ing the 2016 elec­tion, over $1.4bn was spent in on­line ad­ver­tis­ing, which rep­re­sented a 789 per­cent in­crease over the 2012 elec­tion.

On­line ad­ver­tis­ing is ex­pected to be­come even more im­por­tant in the 2018 midterms and the 2020 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. How­ever, while reg­u­la­tions gov­ern­ing tele­vi­sion, ra­dio and print ads are long es­tab­lished, there is lit­tle over­sight in place for dig­i­tal po­lit­i­cal ads. Broad­cast tele­vi­sion and ra­dio sta­tions are legally man­dated to record who bought po­lit­i­cal ads and how muchthey spent. But on­line, po­lit­i­cal ad buy­ers are un­der no such obli­ga­tions – and so the public are fly­ing blind. The re­sult is a land­scape that one op­er­a­tive com­pared to “the wild west.”

For ex­am­ple, last week it was re­vealed that a Rus­sian in­flu­ence op­er­a­tion spent over $100,000 on Face­book dur­ing the 2016 elec­tion. As Demo­crat Mark Warner of Vir­ginia warned re­cently, this ex­pen­di­ture could be “the tip of the ice­berg.”

The rev­e­la­tion came as the grow­ing in­flu­ence of ma­jor tech com­pa­nies has be­come a topic of bi­par­ti­san con­cern in Washington DC, and voices on Capi­tol Hill are get­ting louder about the need for more over­sight of the dig­i­tal giants’grow­ing role in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics.

Al­though some on the left have long raised con­cerns about the lack of com­pe­ti­tion for com­pa­nies like Google and Ama­zon, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has ush­ered in a new group of right-wing of­fi­cials who are skep­ticalof th­ese com­pa­nies. Former White House aide Steve Ban­non ar­gued in fa­vor of reg­u­lat­ing Face­book and Google as public util­i­ties, and White House press sec­re­tary Sarah Huck­abee San­ders gave a point­edly muted re­sponse af­ter Google re­ceived a record fine from the Euro­pean Union. “I don’t have any­thing for us to wade in on a pri­vate com­pany,” she said in June.

This has been joined on the left by in­creas­ingly vo­cal com­ments by prom­i­nent pro­gres­sives like Bernie San­ders and El­iz­a­beth Warren, who warned in a speech last year that ma­jor dig­i­tal com­pa­nies like Google and Ama­zon were “try­ing to snuff out com­pe­ti­tion.” This gained more at­ten­tion in Au­gust when the lib­eral New Amer­i­can Foun­da­tion fired a scholar who had ar­gued Google was a mo­nop­oly. The com­pany, whose CEO Eric Sch­midt was a prom­i­nent Clin­ton sup­porter, had do­nated heav­ily to the non­profit.

This scru­tiny is start­ing to ex­tend to the role of on­line ad­ver­tis­ing in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. The FEC has re­opened a com­ment pe­riod on its rule on dis­claimers for on­line po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­tis­ing. How­ever, it’s un­clear whether this will lead to any change in its rules, which cur­rently grant most on­line ad­ver­tis­ing an ex­cep­tion from reg­u­la­tions that re­quire dis­claimers, the small print stat­ing who paid for a par­tic­u­lar ad, on “elec­tion­eer­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions.”

Oren Shur, the former di­rec­tor of paid me­dia on Hil­lary Clin­ton’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign told the Guardian, “you have ev­ery­one un­der the sun buy­ing po­lit­i­cal ads on­line now. It’s where ev­ery­thing is least trans­par­ent.”

As a Demo­cratic dig­i­tal op­er­a­tive noted to the Guardian, “all ad­ver­tis­ing on tele­vi­sion and ra­dio can be linked back to an FEC fil­ing re­port. Fun­da­men­tally the press and the public can un­der­stand who is buy­ing ad­ver­tis­ing for the pur­poses of the elec­tion, at a ba­sic level you ... can see who is spend­ing what to in­flu­ence an elec­tion and that’s just not true with Google, YouTube Face­book and Twit­ter.”

Face­book and Google now make up roughly 70-75% of po­lit­i­cal dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing sales, but the key ques­tion is whether there is any way to ef­fec­tively im­ple­ment a method of dis­clo­sure that makes trans­parency a re­al­ity. Ja­son Rosen­baum, the former dig­i­tal di­rec­tor for the Clin­ton cam­paign, sug­gested th­ese com­pa­nies adopt a vol­un­tary sys­tem of dis­clo­sure. He noted that ca­ble com­pa­nies, which are not ex­pressly reg­u­lated by the FCC had long done this. Rosen­baum noted that leg­isla­tive and reg­u­la­tory so­lu­tions both face sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal ob­sta­cles and that it was hard to en­vi­sion a tech­no­log­i­cal way to track ad­ver­tise­ments.

In­stead, he thought a vol­un­tary op­tion would not only ben­e­fit the public but be good for plat­forms as it would en­able them to sell more ad­ver­tis­ing which he noted is “what th­ese com­pa­nies do.” If a cam­paign knows a ri­val has bought ad­ver­tis­ing on an on­line plat­form, it is more likely to re­spond in kind and at­tempt to match the buy.

In the mean­time, with­out a so­lu­tion, skep­tics of ma­jor tech plat­forms have­warned of the con­se­quences.

Luther Lowe, vice pres­i­dent for public pol­icy at Yelp and a vo­cal critic of Google, told the Guardian, “This is not stan­dard mo­nop­oly abuse.” Lowe added, “When a dom­i­nant in­for­ma­tion firm abuses its mo­nop­oly, the same neg­a­tive ef­fects of re­duced choice and higher prices as in other mo­nop­o­lies, but democ­racy and free speech are also un­der­mined be­cause th­ese firms now con­trol how in­for­ma­tion is ac­cessed and how it flows.”

As Lowe noted, the con­cerns over the dom­i­nant role of Google and Face­book are not lim­ited to the realm of po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­tis­ing. In the past week, Yelp filed an anti-trust com­plaint against Google, al­leg­ing that it is wrongly scrap­ing Yelp’s con­tent, and Face­book has come un­der at­tack for al­low­ing ad­ver­tis­ers to tar­get con­tent to users in­ter­ested in top­ics like “Jew Haters.” But the po­ten­tial that a for­eign gov­ern­ment used any of th­ese plat­forms to in­flu­ence the 2016 elec­tion looms over all of the other top­ics.

Un­like other me­dia, on­line com­pa­nies like Face­book don’t have to keep records of who pays for po­lit­i­cal ads, keep­ing the public in the dark about a key source of in­flu­ence Pho­to­graph: Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

Large in­for­ma­tion com­pa­nies such as Google have come un­der fire from voices on the right and the left Pho­to­graph: Jeff Chiu/AP

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