The Honest Ads Act Returns

ONLINE AD WATCH — The Honest Ads Act is back. The bill, which was originally introduced in 2017 but didn’t gain much traction, was reintroduced in both the House and the Senate on Tuesday. The lead sponsors in the upper chamber are Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) (who replaced the late-Sen. John McCain as a Republican co-sponsor), while the House effort is being spearheaded by Reps. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) and Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.).

The bill is an attempt to expand political disclosure rules for online advertisements, which have faced less regulation than print or television media. Among other things, the bill would require “paid for” disclosures on a wide swath of online ads, and also require online platforms that get 50 million unique visitors a month to keep a public record of any political ad purchases made on the site that exceed $500 (here’s POLITICO’s 2017 explanation of the bill; the text of the bill introduced Wednesday is largely the same). “It’s imperative that Congress fix the loopholes and ensure Americans know who is paying for the ads they’re seeing, including online ads,” Kilmer said in a statement, saying it’ll defend against foreign interference.

So, what has changed since the bill was introduced in 2017? Some tech companies have begun to self-regulate. FacebookTwitter and Google all introduced political ad archives, with varying levels of transparency. And the obvious one: Democrats now control the House. The bill did not get a dedicated hearing in the House in the 115th Congress, and one in the GOP-controlled Senate. But the bill could get more attention with Democrats in charge. The House also previously passed H.R. 1 — the For the People Act — which included the Honest Ads Act.

But the path for the Honest Ads Act to become law still remains steep. Even if it gets out of the House, the Senate has thus far shown little appetite for campaign finance-related legislation (Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell expressed skepticism about the law in 2017), while some critics say the bill regulates the speech of Americans. And while some in the industry have voiced support for the law — notably Facebook — others have conspicuously not backed it, namely Google. (Google did not return a request for comment.) The Internet Association — a trade group which includes major technology companies like Microsoft, Amazon and Google — offered a counterproposal to the Honest Ads Act in 2017, agreeing that there needs to be more transparency but “subtly hint[ing] it isn’t a fan of everything that’s been floated on Capitol Hill,” Recode wrote at the time. The group did not return a request for comment from Score.

Digital political ad consultants also raised technical concerns about the Act, worrying about its technical implementation. Google pulled out of political advertising in Washington state and Canada after each jurisdiction passed its own online disclosure laws, citing, in part, technical hurdles. "As leaders in the political advertising ecosystem, we welcome the opportunity to work with legislators to build strong regulations that both protect American democracy and have the ability to be successfully implemented from a technical perspective,” Mark Jablonowski, managing partner at the Democratic firm DSPolitical, emailed Score.

Source: Politico