WASHINGTON DC: Proposed legislation that seeks to impose new disclosure requirements on online political advertising could be the forerunner of a wider reassessment of the regulations that govern big technology companies.

The Honest Ads Act, promoted by senators on both sides of the political divide, is framed in terms of national security following concerns about the extent of Russian advertising activity on social media during the 2016 presidential election.

The stated intention of the Act is to “prevent foreign actors from influencing our elections by ensuring that political ads sold online are covered by the same rules as ads sold on TV, radio and satellite”.

Any platform with over 50m monthly active users would be required to monitor political advertising, and to police any advertiser spending over $500 in an attempt to promote a candidate or a cause of “national legislative importance”.

“We cannot justify one set of laws for one form of media outlet – TV, radio and print – and not apply it to another,” said Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar.

A business like Facebook, however, prefers to describe itself as a tech company that surfaces content via algorithm, not a media company which hires reporters to cover the news.

In the Financial Times, associate editor Rana Foroohar argued that passing the Honest Ads Act would be “a step towards reframing the regulatory debate around Big Tech”, and that lawmakers should then look again at that section of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which says that platforms are not responsible for what their users post.

“It is a get-out-of-jail free clause which has protected the industry from all sorts of legal issues that most businesses deal with every day, and is as outdated and unfair as the loopholes around political ad disclosure online,” she declared.

Several commentators, including IAB CEO and President Randall Rothenberg, have pointed out that the legislation as currently drafted, while welcome, does not address those organic posts and viral content which may not explicitly endorse a candidate, but are responsible for much of the “fake news” phenomenon.

“We can monitor the financing chain, whether the paid support takes the form of conventional advertising, or whether it shows up in more contemporary or unfamiliar forms and formats, such as native advertising and branded content,” Rothenberg will tell Congress in a hearing today.

“Our industry standards can be tough, encompassing speech that may be legally permitted, but nonetheless offensive to common-sense norms. Our disclosure mechanisms can follow the money closely and carefully and attack the problem at its roots.”

Sourced from MediaPost, Wired, Financial Times; additional content by WARC staff