A predominantly Democratic-pushed bill was introduced last week under the guise it would protect against hostile actors such as Russia from purchasing advertisements on the Internet that sow racial division and spread fake news.
Senators Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Mark Warner, D-Va., and John McCain, R-Ariz., claim the Internet Ads Legislation (S. 1989) would simply require Big Tech companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter to disclose information about who paid for political ads on their platform. Thus, in some known way, it will prevent foreign actors from buying harmful ads.
“In the wake of Russia’s attack on our election,” Senator Klobuchar said on October 19 at a press conference introducing the bill, “it’s important to strengthen our defenses.” She argued federal law has not kept up with technology, creating “loopholes” to “influence millions of American voters with impunity.”
It is currently in the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration.
However, an analysis of the so-called “Honest Ads Act” finds the bill does almost nothing to regulate foreign interference in U.S. elections. Instead, it predominantly targets Americans and would impose broad-based, restrictions and regulations on Americans’ free speech rights.
“Legislation that responds to foreign meddling by regulating the speech of Americans will not limit foreign influence in American political campaigns,” said Eric Wang, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Free Speech, which conducted the analysis. “Worse, it will impede the ability of Americans to use their own speech to call out and expose ‘fake news’ and propaganda.”
While the Institute for Free Speech says they’re “deeply disturbed” by the efforts of Russia and other hostile foreign actors, the legislation will undermine our democracy, not secure it. It will advance Vladimir Putin’s agenda, not derail it, by sowing further division and “placing considerable limits and burdens on the online political speech of Americans.”
An overwhelming 99.99% of the online political ads regulated by the bill will be purchased by Americans, while ads purchased by foreigners represent less than 0.01%. These Americans’ communications will be subject to the burdensome disclaimer and reporting requirements from the Federal Election Commission (FEC).
As a result, speakers would be susceptible to politically motivated complaints, investigations, and legal liability if they are unable to correctly discern whether and how they are regulated under these complex laws. These costs would negate many of the Internet’s benefits in enabling low-cost, grassroots campaigns to effect political and social change.
The bill achieves this by expanding the definition of “electioneering communications,” a standard traditionally limited to large-scale television and radio campaigns targeting the electorate, even if the ads are not targeted in any way at the relevant electorate. Only large, well-funded political campaigns and Big Media will have the ability to comply with the FEC regulations.
The cost to provide and maintain the information that the bill requires to be kept in what is known as a “public file” will make it financially impossible for alternative media and grassroots — from Black Lives Matter to the Tea Party — to participate. Mr. Wang notes it will also subject these groups to harassment by opponents monitoring the content, distribution, and sponsorship of their activities.