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.”

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