Senators Propose Social-Media Ad Rules After Months of Russia Probes

Updated on
  • Bipartisan bill requires disclosure of political advertising
  • Other bills drafted to counter Russia hacking, influence

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After months of congressional investigations into Russian interference with U.S. elections, legislation is gaining traction as senators introduced a bipartisan plan to impose new disclosure requirements for political ads on Facebook, Twitter, Google and other social media.

"Election security is national security," said Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar at a news conference Thursday announcing a bill to require disclosure of who’s paying for online political ads. Internet social networks are "dwarfing" broadcasters in the number of users, she said, adding, "Americans deserve to know who is paying for the online ads."

GOP Senator John McCain gave a big boost to the proposal by Klobuchar and Democrat Mark Warner, announcing he’ll co-sponsor the bill. 

“In the wake of Russia’s attack on the 2016 election, it is more important than ever to strengthen our defenses against foreign interference in our elections,” McCain said in a statement. “Unfortunately, U.S. laws requiring transparency in political campaigns have not kept pace with rapid advances in technology, allowing our adversaries to take advantage of these loopholes to influence millions of American voters with impunity."

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The bill would require digital platforms with as least 50 million monthly viewers to maintain a public file of all election-related ads from people who purchase at least $500 worth of such advertising on their network.

The bill also would require the companies to make all reasonable efforts to prevent foreign individuals and entities from purchasing ads to affect the electorate -- ads that are already illegal under the law.

A Facebook official said the company supports efforts to promote transparency in political ads.

“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,” Erin Egan, vice president for U.S. public policy at Facebook Inc., said in a statement.

In two weeks, executives for the social media giants are due to testify at public hearings about Russia’s use of their networks to interfere in the 2016 election.

While televised political ads require disclosure of who paid for them, there are no such requirements for social media networks. The proposal by Klobuchar and Warner is intended to bring social media ads up to the broadcast standard.

Until now, Congress’s reaction to Russian meddling has been to open investigations and to strengthen economic sanctions against the country. President Donald Trump, whose campaign is under investigation over possible collusion with Moscow, has wavered about whether he thinks Russia meddled in the election and insisted his campaign didn’t collude.

But lawmakers in both parties say now is the time to act, before the 2018 midterm elections, when intelligence officials expect a continued Russian effort to interfere.

Shell Companies

Bipartisan efforts also are under way to protect voting machines and databases from cyber intrusions and to more easily identify Russian attempts at influencing U.S. elections by requiring shell companies to disclose their owners.

It’s not clear whether Republican House and Senate leaders or the White House will back the various efforts, although Attorney General Jeff Sessions said at a hearing Wednesday he’s willing to work with lawmakers on issues such as cybersecurity.

Lawmakers’ focus on social media comes after Facebook, Twitter Inc. and Google owner Alphabet Inc. acknowledged Russian exploitation of their networks to spread propaganda and chaos. Representatives from the companies are scheduled to testify before Congress on Nov. 1.

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said last week the company would hire 4,000 workers to improve vetting of online advertising and identification of fake accounts. Sandberg said the network wants to create a "new standard" for transparency.

Linked Accounts

Facebook has said about 470 Russia-linked accounts purchased advertising seeking to create strife, prompting Twitter to identify bogus accounts on its own network linked to the Facebook profiles.

Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch will represent the company at the House and Senate hearings, according to a spokesman. Stretch has been leading the company security team’s internal investigation into the scope and impact of Russian ads on the platform before the election.

Stretch is also a veteran at thinking about Facebook’s role in political advertising. In 2011, he wrote an opinion for the company that told the Federal Election Commission that disclosure rules "should not stand in the way of innovation.”

Facebook lobbied for years to prevent disclosure requirements for online media. By contrast, the requirements for political ads on television, which are enforced by the Federal Election Commission, include who is financing ads and how much is being spent on them.

Twitter acting General Counsel Sean Edgett will represent the company at the congressional hearings, a company spokesman said.

Klobuchar of Minnesota said a day earlier that under the bill, social media would have to follow the same rules as television and radio stations. "They need to disclose and publicly register and notice who’s buying ads for political purposes," she said. 

Klobuchar said the exemption has become a far bigger problem over time, allowing foreign governments and bad actors to hide their efforts online -- even paying for ads in Russian rubles.

"I’m sure early on, in the early days of Facebook and Google, there weren’t a lot of these paid political ads. Well, now we’re at $1.4 billion," she said.

‘Light Touch’

Warner, of Virginia, said he hopes Facebook and other companies will back the bill, and he predicted that other Republicans will sign on after the Nov. 1 hearing.

GOP Senators Susan Collins of Maine, John Cornyn of Texas and Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina have all said in interviews they want to wait for the hearing before deciding on legislation.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, has said he is considering a push for even broader disclosure requirements by the social media companies. "This threat to democracy is with us now," he said. "It’s only going to expand. We have to muster a self-defense, just as we would a military or a cyberattack."

Several senators are also working on bills aimed at improving election security, including Democrat Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and Collins, both members of the Intelligence Committee.

Heinrich’s legislation is expected to propose funding and guidelines to protect voting systems and databases from cyberattacks. Republican Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma said in an interview he is working on his own proposal, and Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon has pressed voting machine companies for information on their security practices.

States Targeted

Those efforts follow reports that Russia attempted to access 21 state voter databases.

"We’ve got to get it ready for 2018, so it is the right timing," Lankford said.

Bills requiring disclosure of shell companies’ owners may also get a boost from the concern over Russia’s actions.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, said testimony has shown that shell companies were "the lubricant for the election interference effort." Whitehouse has introduced a bill requiring disclosure of owners, co-sponsored by Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican.

"Shell corporations help criminals hide the proceeds of their crimes, they help kleptocrats protect what they loot from their countries, but they also help facilitate Putin election interference," Whitehouse said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A separate bill by Wyden and Marco Rubio of Florida would require disclosure of the owners of shell companies to states or to the Treasury Department.

— With assistance by Sarah Frier, and Selina Wang

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