Tech Giants Face Advertising Regulation

Eli Hsia, JHU:

On October 31st, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism called executives from Facebook and Twitter to testify regarding hacks of their social media platforms, namely by foreign actors during the 2016 Presidential Election.

The counsels of Facebook and Twitter made mild concessions of responsibility during the three hearings, but generally demonstrated a concerning lack of interest in implementing policies that could solve this problem moving forward.

With a combined 2.7 billion users as of the third quarter of 2017, these two companies alone control massive flows of information to the electorate.  As such, they cannot remain so negligent in respect to the security of their membership and integrity of their advertisements. It is impossible to know if Hillary Clinton would be president had the Russian propaganda flood on social media been detected and prevented. However, it would be grossly naive to dismiss the repercussions of this event and move forward with business as usual.

Facebook has handed over to the FBI 3,000 political ads bought by fake accounts that are likely connected to Russian efforts to undermine the US election. Twitter has found roughly 200 such accounts with Russian ties.

As such, it is time for sweeping reforms, both on part of the tech companies and lawmakers, in order to protect the privacy of social media users, and to safeguard our nation from cyber threats made by foreign actors. It is easy to overlook the consequences of social media platforms being insecure, but it truly is an issue of national security.

On the side of the state, reform must begin with the passage of bill H.R. 4077, the Honest Ads Act. This act is designed “to enhance the integrity of American democracy and national security by improving disclosure requirements for online political advertisements.”

It stipulates that online companies must disclose who is purchasing political advertisements on their websites. The bill essentially applies the regulations of television advertisements to online advertisements. All sites with over 50 million monthly visitors would have to file all ads purchased for $500 or more. This information would moreover become public record.

Such legislation would increase the oversight of purchases by online advertisers, protecting the US from foreign influences. Not only would this law safeguard our democracy, it would improve it by reducing the power that lobbyists have over the American electorate by increasing the transparency of their advertising.

Senator Mark Varner (D-VA)  said in an interview with NPR that “in this new era where over half of Americans get…their news from social media, if you advertise politically on social media, you need to disclose what group is advertising, and there ought to be … the same kind of requirements that already exist if people were to advertise on NPR or on television …[to equalize] the playing field.”

Executives from Facebook and Twitter testified that they are implementing measures to increase the transparency of ads on their platforms, yet have stopped short of endorsing the bill. The government oversight the bill provides is imperative to ensure that transparency is achieved.

On the side of the companies, steps are being taken, but the rate of reform must accelerate. Twitter has shown to be the most progressive, announcing that they plan to create an “Advertising Transparency Center,” a feature where Twitter users can access every current advertisement on the platform, political in nature or otherwise. Moreover, users will see a special label for political ads, and the duration of the ad will be featured. Finally, these changes would require all political advertisers to identify as such, and imposes undisclosed penalties for those who break Twitter’s rules.

The Congressional hearings have not brought about any enlightening new information or sweeping reforms, but they remain a valuable aspect of our public dialogue because they have revealed how poorly our government and favorite websites have been in handling online political advertising. The proposed reforms detailed above are a thoroughly insufficient, yet a monumental first step towards addressing our advertising woes. Greater reform must come, but that ought to be done on a rolling basis as we see which holes these changes patch up and which remain.             

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