June 07, 2018

Congress roasted Facebook on TV, but won’t hear any bills to regulate it

On October 19th of last year, a just-barely bipartisan group of senators held a press conference to announce a new piece of legislation. The Honest Ads Act, as the bill is called, would require Facebook, Google, and other tech platforms to retain copies of the political ads they host and make them available for public inspection. Platforms would have to release information about who bought the ads, how much they cost, and to whom the ads were targeted. Anyone who spent more than $500 on political ads would be subject to public scrutiny.

“Our democracy is at risk,” a solemn Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) told reporters at the time. “Russia attacked our elections, and they and other foreign powers and interests will continue to divide our country if we don’t act now.” Klobuchar presented the legislation as a simple but urgent fix, and played up the bill’s bipartisan nature in hopes that it would quickly become law.

Revelations from Facebook, Google, and other social media platforms of Russia-linked groups sparked a flurry of activity in the capital last fall, prompting the tech companies to spend more on lobbyists and crisis public-relations firms than they ever had. “Your power scares me,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA), during public hearings in October. If regulations weren’t imminent, they still seemed more likely than ever before.

If the proposed changes in the Honest Ads Act sound relatively straightforward, it could be because similar rules already apply to broadcast media, including print and television. But regulations of online political activity have lagged behind the rules governing traditional broadcast media. As a result, the bill’s supporters argue, social media platforms are more susceptible to the kind of foreign interference that marred the 2016 US presidential election. “Who wouldn’t want to know if the ad that’s appearing next to your story was actually paid for by a foreign power?” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), in announcing the bill. “I don’t know what opposition there would be to that kind of disclosure.”

As it turns out: plenty. But the opposition has come not from tech companies, who have been increasingly supportive of the legislation, but instead from the Republican majority in Congress. The multiple new pieces of legislation aimed at regulating tech platforms, including a new consumer privacy protection act, have attracted few Republican cosponsors, and the bills have yet to receive a single hearing. And while the bills’ sponsors remain publicly supportive, it appears increasingly unlikely that Congress will take action on either bill before the midterms.

“I’d like to see something happen sooner rather than later,” said Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA), who introduced the Honest Ads Act in the House of Representatives. “Reforms in this regard are going to be a priority if Democrats take back the house. But I don’t want to wait that long, because we’ve got an election coming up. We already know that foreign actors sought to influence the last election. To me, if Congress acknowledges that, but does not do anything about it, then its at its own peril.”

Warner said he had been heartened by recent moves by Facebook and Twitter to endorse the Honest Ads Act, and to adopt some of its precepts voluntarily. Facebook’s new requirements for political advertisers, which include identity verification and prominent disclosure labels, took effect at the end of May. But those voluntary moves don’t go far enough, he said.

“The truth is that government is still playing catch-up to this emerging threat,” Warner said in an email. “But what is clear is that, left unregulated, these platforms will continue to be prone to deception and misuse. While I know it won’t happen overnight, we have to treat this issue with the urgency it deserves, since the midterm elections are already well underway.”

At the same time, Senate aides said the Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell had shown little enthusiasm for the legislation. Republicans have little to gain by promoting legislation that draws attention to Russian interference in the 2016 election, particularly with President Donald Trump still under a cloud related to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

That helps explain why the bills have attracted so few Republican cosponsors. The Honest Ads Act has nine Republican cosponsors in the House, and just one — Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) — in the Senate.

“This is not a Democrat issue. This is not a Republican issue,” Kilmer said. “This is an American issue. We’ve not heard from anyone in any part of the political spectrum who thinks this is not a legitimate problem.”

In any case, this legislation isn’t alone in stalling, Kilmer said. Lawmakers have struggled to reach an agreement on a wide range of issues, from immigration to net neutrality. “Congress is not exactly a legislative juggernaut,” he said. “That’s probably an impediment greater than anything specific about the bill.”

In the meantime, platforms are struggling to regulate themselves. Facebook introduced new ad disclosure requirements last month and, in the resulting confusion, inadvertently blocked some legitimate candidates from buying ads in the final days before the June 5th primary. The company demanded academics and publishers register as political advertisers, even when they had posted seemingly apolitical stories. And with legislation going nowhere, there was no one to appeal to but Facebook itself.

By:  Casey Newton
Source: The Verge