News Opinion Editorial

What is the Honest Ads Act and can it stop fake political ads on social media?

Should the U.S. government regulate political ads on social media the same way it regulates advertisements on television or radio?

That question is at the center of a national conversation about social media after Russian agents gamed Facebook, Twitter and Google to spread misinformation in the U.S. and sow political discord during the recent election cycle.

As many as 126 million Americans may have seen posts and ads on Facebook that were created by Russians with the intent of disrupting the election, a company executive said in testimony before Congress on Tuesday. Meanwhile, Russia was linked to 1.4 million Twitter messages and 1,100-plus videos on Google-owned YouTube.

So what happens now? One solution is called the Honest Ads Act, a bill that proposes — at the very minimum — to make the process of political advertising on social media more transparent.

But the bill goes well beyond that. Here are a few things to know about the Honest Ads Act and whether tech giants like Facebook, Twitter and Google are on board.

What exactly does the Honest Ads Act propose to do?

You can read the full bill here, but the gist is this:

The bill would require internet companies to keep copies of political ads, information about the media buyers, their intended target audiences and rates charged for the ads. On top of that, the bill proposes to make companies keep those on file for no less than four years and make that information public.

The requirement would apply to anyone spending $500 or more in a political ad, a higher bar than previously set.

Though the text of the bill does not specifically name any particular social media site like Facebook or Twitter, it says the requirements would apply to any site that has at least 50 million unique monthly visitors in the previous 12 months.

The Federal Election Commission would set those and other rules, the bill says.

How is this different from existing laws?

A loophole in a 2002 law, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, allowed Russians to bypass regulations that apply only to broadcast, cable and satellite broadcast ads, Slate reported.

As a result, a Kremlin-linked “troll farm” spent $100,000 for roughly 3,000 political ads between June 2015 and May 2017, Facebook disclosed in September.

Who has sponsored it?

The Honest Ads Act has similar versions in the U.S. Senate and in the House of Representatives.

A version of the bill in the U.S. Senate was introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, and co-sponsored by Sens. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, and John McCain, R-Arizona.

The House of Representatives version of the bill was introduced by Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Washington, and co-sponsored by Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colorado.

What have executives at Facebook, Twitter and Google said about it?

The three tech giants appear reluctant to go along with it. When the bill was introduced, executives for all three companies told tech blog The Verge that they looked forward to working with lawmakers to work on “solutions.”

For its part, Twitter said last week that it would take steps to transparency in its political ads similar to those spelled out in the bill, but it declined to embrace it to the fullest extent.

But on Tuesday, not a single Facebook, Google, and Twitter executive who testified before members of Congress committed to supporting the bill, technology blog Recode reported.

What have others outside tech and politics said about it?

The fate of the bill remains unclear but it has undoubtedly become a big part of the conversation about how to best address Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

Support is coming from Chicago Sun-Times technology columnist Andy Ihnatko and tech entrepreneur and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, among others.

Have some thoughts to share?

Join me in a conversation: Shoot me a private email with your thoughts or ideas on a different approach to this story. As always, you can also send us a tweet

Email: luis.gomez@sduniontribune.com

Twitter: @RunGomez

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