FEC Proposes New Rules for Digital Ad Disclosures

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) voted on Wednesday to move forward with new rules that would bump up disclosure requirements for certain political ads on platforms like Facebook and Google.

The move comes as spending on the 2018 midterms is ramping up and as both lawmakers and digital platforms look to prevent continued foreign influence in American elections.

Any rule change may not be in place for the bulk of this election year as well, and last week FEC Republican Chairwoman Caroline Hunter expressed apprehension about “changing the rules of the game” midway through an election cycle.

At the meeting, commissioners presented two proposals that would require new disclaimers on “express advocacy” ads on digital platforms. “Express advocacy” ads advocate for the election or defeat of a candidate and makeup just a small percentage of online ads.

The commission voted 4-0 to open 60 days for public comments and have scheduled a June 27 public hearing on the matter.

The two proposals vary in their requirements for the size and content of disclaimers, among other differences. One proposal would also define the term “internet communication.” The measures would also only cover a small portion of political advertising on digital platforms and likely not affect the types of ads that allowed for the harnessing of Facebook and other digital platforms by Russian actors in 2016.

However, Democrat Ellen Weintraub, the FEC’s vice chairwoman, called the commission’s vote a “step in the right direction” for transparency of digital advertising, a medium that is expected to be increasingly experimented with since the Trump campaign successfully harnessed it in 2016.

Political spending on digital ads is projected to grow by 2,539 percent between 2014 and 2018, according to a recent study.

“I think it will be an improvement,” Weintraub said of the FEC’s proposals. “It will bring greater transparency to political ads. It’s not going to solve all the problems that we saw in the last election.”

Despite butting heads in the process of drafting the proposed rules, commissioners noted the urgency to create rules to regulate the growing realm of digital advertising.

“It has taken another event like Watergate to make everyone realize we have to act in a bipartisan [effort] in order to do something,” said Commissioner Steven Walther, an independent.

Republican Commissioner Matthew Petersen said they were “threading the needle,” trying not to overregulate but also working toward greater transparency.

“We have a strong interest in ensuring that we are not impeding the further development of the internet and technology as a means of allowing and facilitating political communication,” Petersen said, “but at the same time ensuring that the disclaimer requirements … are also being met.”