Facebook, Google may face stricter rules on political advertising

Facebook Inc., Alphabet Inc.’s Google and other online platforms would face stricter rules for political advertising according to a proposed framework that will be considered by the Federal Election Commission.

The proposal, written by Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat and vice chair of the commission, would require online advertisements to carry the same disclaimers from their sponsors as do radio, television and print ads. The commission will consider the framework, known as a notice of proposed rule making, at its next public hearing on March 8.

The move comes as tech companies face growing scrutiny in Washington ranging from concerns about market dominance to concerns that online platforms are used for sex trafficking of children. 

Congress has been examining how Russians used social media platforms to influence the 2016 election, and bipartisan bills have been introduced in both the House and Senate that would require companies like Facebook and Google to disclose information about sponsors of political ads on their sites, including how much they’re spending and what audiences the ads are focusing on.

Though the FEC proposal, which was shared by Weintraub, would apply to campaigns, political parties and other organizations that try to influence federal elections, tech companies could also be affected. They might have to adapt their platforms to accommodate the kind of disclaimers the FEC envisions. 

In 2011, Facebook asked the FEC for an exemption from disclaimer rules because its ads used a "sponsored" tag that did not identify the sponsor, and did not necessarily link back to the sponsor’s website. The election commission deadlocked on granting an exemption. 

In the wake of revelations that Facebook, Google and other online sites were used by Russians in 2015 and 2016 to influence Americans on hot button social and political issues, the FEC reopened the rule making process to require more disclosure for online ads. The draft rule would require text and graphic ads to include the name of a sponsor "in letters of sufficient size to be clearly readable."

Political ads on streaming music services or Internet radio stations would have to include oral disclaimers, while candidates buying online video and audio ads would have to state their names and add, "And I approve of this message."

The notice, which will require the support of Republican commissioners to be adopted, also tries to anticipate how developing technologies, including virtual and augmented reality, should be regulated.

The last time the FEC issued a ruling on internet advertising was in 2006, the year after YouTube was founded. That ruling required individuals and committees buying online political ads to disclose the spending. The disclaimer provision applied to "paid Internet advertising placed on another person’s website," like banner ads, but exempted other forms of Internet communications.

The six-member commission, which enforces election laws, can include no more than three members from one party. Currently there are three Republicans, one Democrat and one independent. Lee Goodman, a Republican, is stepping down Friday, which will create two vacancies. FEC rules will require four votes to adopt or propose rules.

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