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Proposed Federal Law to Prevent Foreign Influence on Election Ads Will Actually Make Americans Less Free

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As Congress continues to examine whether foreign influence impacted the 2016 presidential election through the use of social media, a recently introduced bill will likely be widely discussed. S.1989, also known as the “Honest Ads Act,” is said to help limit potential foreign interference, but won’t just affect other countries; it will impact Americans too.

While the Honest Ads Act, which was introduced by senators Amy Klobuchar, John McCain and Mark Warner, was created as a method of addressing digital political advertisements, such as those featured on social media, purchased by foreign governments, its restrictions and requirements will be applied universally, impacting US advertisers as well.

As reported by The Hill, S.1989 undoes the “internet exemption” put in place by the FEC, which limited the number of restraints put on political advertisements that were displayed online unless the ad was a “communication placed for a fee on another person’s website.” Instead, any “paid internet or digital communication” could be regulated under the new bill, especially if the company placing the ad spends more than $500 cumulatively on such activities.

The definition of “electioneering communications” is also expanded in S.1989, allowing it to include online ads that directly refer to any elected official or candidates during specified pre-election periods, potentially even if the ad in question discusses a non-electoral issue, like advocating that people contact their Congressperson before vote on a key issue like tax or criminal justice reform.

Reporting requirements are also increased under the Honest Ads Act as a publicly accessible database would need to house copies of any digital ad subject to the regulation as well as details how the ad was targeted to specific segments of the population, when the ad ran, the candidate or issue discussed, information about the ad’s sponsor including its officers and board members, and the average advertising rate charged.

While similarly requirements are currently imposed on broadcast media, some are concerned that requiring the same for social media ads could increase the cost, possibly pricing smaller organizations out and preventing them from being able to afford to advertise.

Social media giants Facebook and Twitter have both begun creating their own systems for handling foreign propaganda, but S.1989 would specifically restrict more than just the activities of foreign entities, as it would potentially apply to all ads regardless of who places them.

It is important to note that, according to Yahoo Finance, the Honest Ads Act does nothing in regards to requiring that the content of the ads be true, just that the information regarding who placed the ad be accessible and that required disclaimers be added to the content.