After Russian meddling, Facebook and Google shift stance on regulation
The tech giants are open to greater oversight for online political ads
Facebook and Google told federal election officials they are open to greater oversight over the lucrative business of online political advertising, a shift for the tech giants who recently acknowledged that their ad platforms were exploited by Russian operatives during and after the 2016 election.
Google even took a step further than its rivals, telling regulators that they should create a broad rule that would ban foreign entities from buying any kind of political ad aimed at influencing voters, not just those that mention candidates. Russian operatives generated and published “issue” ads on Facebook far more frequently than those that explicitly promoted candidates. Many of the issue ads sought to divide U.S. society over politically charged topics such as immigration, Black Lives Matter and gun rights.
Facebook did not offer a position on issue-based ads to election officials, despite the company’s admission that 90 percent of the Russian-bought content that ran on its network did not mention President Trump or his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
The comments were submitted to the Federal Election Commission before a Monday night deadline as the agency considers new disclosure requirements for online advertisements. The discussion process at the FEC comes as lawmakers on Capitol Hill are pushing their own proposal to boost the transparency of digital ads and as Silicon Valley faces heightened scrutiny in Washington.
Few companies have faced more pressure from lawmakers than Facebook, which has acknowledged that a Russian troll farm generated about 3,000 ads on its network as well as other free posts that collectively reached 126 million users. In its comments to federal election officials, the social-media network encouraged the FEC to make sure that its new rules would apply to all digital platforms — otherwise, it said, Russian hackers and other foreign actors would turn to less transparent platforms to distribute their messages.
Twitter also expressed openness to greater regulation of political ads but asked officials to consider “the limited and valuable space available for political advertisements” on its platform.
Such positions marked a reversal from what some tech giants had expressed in the past. In 2011, Facebook argued to the FEC that requiring the companies to run disclaimers with small, characterlimited political ads on the Web would be inconvenient and impractical. The commission has long compelled television and radio stations to run such disclosures.
Online ads do have some requirements. Under FEC rules, all political committees, individuals and groups that pay to run ads on a Web platform must report their spending in public filings. The commission, however, has not drawn clear lines on what is required of small, character-limited political ads online — which were effectively exempted from disclaimer requirements by a 2010 FEC advisory opinion.
FEC Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub welcomed the input from the technology companies and said she hopes their support for updated rules will drive her Republican counterparts on the commission to act. “My job is to ensure that the American people get the information they need to evaluate the information they are seeing online,” she said.
The number of public comments to the FEC was in the thousands, she said, owing to the intense public interest in the Russian social-media campaign. In previous commenting periods about political advertising, just seven people submitted input, according to Weintraub, while in another just six did so.
“Public events show how important it is to understand where the information is coming,” she said. “I don’t think anyone wants to get their political information from a Russian troll farm.”