New bill seeks greater transparency for political ads on Facebook, Google and Twitter

Three US senators have just introduced the Honest Ads Act, a new bill that seeks to bring greater transparency to political ads displayed on internet services such as Facebook, Google and Twitter.   

The bill comes to the fore as congressional investigations into Russian interference in the lead up to and during the 2016 election continue. The Honest Ads Act is sponsored by Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Senator John McCain (R-AZ).

The Honest Ads Act would make it so internet ads are subject to the same disclosure rules as those in print, TV and radio. This means making copies of political ads available to the public and disclosing who purchased the ads, as well as the audiences targeted by the ads. 

The types of ads covered by the bill include those for and against candidates and those pertaining to issues of national importance. 

As described by Senator Klobuchar during a press conference introducing the bill, the Honest Ads Act would make it so online platforms disclose paid political ads in the same way as more traditional forms of media disclose the same information. The bill would essentially extend current disclosure rules to these newer online platforms. 

The senators say laws have not kept up with technology nor the capabilities of "foreign adversaries" when it comes to reviewing political ads, and this bill would correct that imbalance. 

While Facebook, Google and Twitter are the biggest names swept up in election meddling investigations, any online entity, search engine or social network with 50 million or more unique US visitors during the majority of the year would be covered by the new rules, according to Recode

Sites and services would also be required to "do a better job of policing" themselves "to ensure the laws designed to prevent foreign nationals from influencing US elections aren't being violated," Klobuchar said. 

TechRadar has asked Facebook, Google and Twitter for comment. A Twitter spokesperson sent us a brief statement: "We look forward to engaging with Congress and the FEC on these issues."

Google, meanwhile, sent us this statement:

"We support efforts to improve transparency, enhance disclosures, and reduce foreign abuse. We're evaluating steps we can take on our own platforms and will work closely with lawmakers, the FEC, and the industry to explore the best solutions."

Taking action

Facebook disclosed in September that it discovered roughly 3,000 Russia-linked ads, totaling approximately $100,000 in spending between June 2015 and May 2017. 

The social network has since turned these ads, which focused on divisive social and political messages rather than specific candidates, over to congressional investigators. 

In response to its discovery, Facebook introduced a number of measures to ensure greater transparency and authenticity of the ads it displays. It also plans to hire more than 1,000 people over the next year to review advertisements. 

These steps are seen by many as an attempt by Facebook to regulate itself before lawmakers put regulations in place that could harm the company's business model.

Facebook, Google and Twitter are set to testify before congressional committees on November 1. The hearings will focus on Russian-linked accounts and advertisements and how these might have interfered with the 2016 election.