Lawmakers seek to curb foreign influence by closing online political ad loopholes

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US Senators Amy Klobuchar and Lindsey Graham (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Lawmakers and transparency groups announced legislation Wednesday meant to close digital political advertisement loopholes that enabled Russian actors to meddle in the 2016 presidential election.

Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) introduced the 2019 Honest Ads Act, which would mandate disclosure of those paying for online political ads and create a publicly available database of political ads that appear on major online platforms such as Facebook, Google, Amazon, Snapchat and Twitter. The bill would encourage major platforms to ensure that foreign entities are not buying political ads.

The bill was introduced with the backing of several campaign finance watchdogs. In a conference call Wednesday, Campaign Legal Center (CLC) President Trevor Potter, a former Republican FEC commissioner, said the bill would give “voters, journalists, and law enforcement officers important tools to help root out illegal foreign activity.”

Special counsel Robert Mueller found that Russian actors spent more than $100,000 on digital ads, many of which explicitly supported or opposed candidates — violating the federal ban on foreign involvement in elections. These ads were disseminated through fake accounts that mimicked existing political groups, but as disclosure laws apply only to TV and radio ads but not digital ads, users were unable to find out who was behind the ads.

Following outrage over Russian-purchased ads meant to influence the 2016 election, Facebook, Google and Twitter launched their own databases to track political advertising. But it’s clear lawmakers and watchdogs don’t want to rely on voluntary reporting. By the end of 2018, all three companies endorsed provisions in the Honest Ads Act, which applies to platforms with at least 50 million monthly users. 

Reps. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) and Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) are lead sponsors of companion legislation in the House, which has 26 co-sponsors. Graham replaces the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as the lead Republican sponsor in the Senate. He said he added his name to the bill “because it’s clear we have to start somewhere.”

Erin Chlopak, director of campaign finance strategy at CLC, said more steps could be taken to limit foreign interference in U.S. elections. She noted individual states — including Vermont, Washington and Wyoming — have extended reporting and disclaimer requirements to online ads.

Chlopak said the FEC could do much more to limit foreign interference by simply adding reporting and disclaimer requirement to online ads — and by clarifying rules on whether U.S. subsidiaries of foreign-owned corporations may take part in U.S. elections. The Center for Responsive Politics found that foreign-owned corporations funnelled millions to super PAcs following the Citizens United v. FEC, the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that opened up federal elections to direct corporate contributions.

Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform at CLC, added that the FEC needs to better enforce laws currently on the books. He said that the FEC recently levied a $390,000 fine against pro-Jeb Bush super PAC Right to Rise for accepting $1.3 million from a Chinese-owned company — but allowed the super PAC to keep the rest of the money.

“If the FEC were to similarly signal that it takes the foreign national contribution ban seriously, we should expect to see increased compliance,” Fischer said. “But as it stands, the FEC’s record of not enforcing the law sends a signal that wealthy special interests — foreign or domestic — can push the legal envelope and get away with it.”

Fischer said the agency should pursue civil action against Donald Trump Jr. for soliciting an in-kind contribution from foreign nationals during the infamous 2016 Trump Tower meeting. Mueller declined to prosecute Trump Jr. due to the high standard of evidence required for a criminal prosecution, but Fischer said the FEC has enough evidence to pursue civil penalties. He said the FEC should do so to send a message that campaigns cannot solicit opposition research from foreign nationals without consequence.

Action from the FEC appears unlikely, however, as the agency is short two commissioners and therefore gridlocked from pursuing most investigations, let alone major overhauls of existing rules.

So campaign finance reform groups are putting their chips behind action from Congress. Issue One sent a letter of support for the Honest Ads Act from 114 former lawmakers — 49 Republicans and 65 Democrats — to members of Congress.

“These lawmakers should be applauded for coming together in a bipartisan fashion to provide Americans with the tools they need to know who is trying to influence their vote in 2020 and beyond,” said Issue One Executive Director Meredith McGehee.

Whether the bill will pass the Senate remains a difficult question. The 2017 version of the bill didn’t get a vote in the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has repeatedly blocked similar transparency-related bills on grounds that they would chill free speech.

Note: The Center has in the past endorsed the Honest Ads Act, a bill that increases transparency of online political ads. 

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