Global headwinds for political transparency online

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Today’s introduction of the Honest Ads Act in Congress is untarnished good news for accountability in our elections. Paid political advertising has moved online. It’s time for basic standards for public disclosure to adjust to that reality.

This bill, if enacted, will help inform voters, enforce our election laws, prevent abuse, and help us understand how influence is functioning as our democracy evolves.

We shouldn’t be too sanguine though, because the common sense measures that comprise the Honest Ads Act are an important bulwark for a campaign finance regulatory system that has been eroded and attacked for decades.

Here are the global headwinds we’re all facing in the fight for transparent, accountable election spending.

The DISCLOSE Act failed

If you have enough money and motivation, you can still avoid disclosing millions of dollars of election spending in America. The limits and prohibitions central to how political spending is regulated were gutted in Citizens United and related decisions, and Congress failed to respond to the Supreme Court’s naive prompt — that disclosure would ensure accountability. If we succeed in getting transparency required for political spending online, some of that disclosure will only trace back to shell entities used to hide donors’ tracks. Legislators still have to fear the credible threat of a big money veto of their positions, as anonymous influencers wield big money that can overwhelm public discourse with its scale.

Paid activity is a worrying frontier

The Honest Ads Act takes the right starting point — applying the minimal standard for public accountability as it exists in the analog world, and attempting to carefully apply it to the digital world. These disclosures are built around the ad buy as the fundamental unit for regulation, with common sense thresholds for notable activity worth regulating.

The limitation inherent in this approach, though, is that it’s not clear whether paid ads are the most effective intervention online. As foreign provocateurs and troll armies sow doubt and division in our public political discourse, it’s unclear to what extent paid advertising will be as effective a target for regulation in a world where social scale can be purchased cheaply. Divisive messaging is easier to produce than civically valuable information.

Enforcement challenges at scale

Massive online platforms succeed largely because they are able to achieve massive scale. Automation empowers new models of both communicating and profiting. It’s comparatively easy for broadcast advertising managers to follow regulations when typical transactions are in the tens or hundreds of thousands, but how can a massive company whose profits rely on automatic processes ensure political speech is being adequately regulated? This will likely take a combination of technical intervention and investment in humans to ensure compliance, but given the kind of profit margins at the largest companies, this is a small concession for basic transparency standards.

Questions of political will

The Honest Ads Act, and efforts like it, will face stiffest opposition from what has often been partisan opposition to even basic campaign finance regulation.

The Honest Ads Act, though, is leading off with bipartisan support, demonstrating important consensus for the bill’s starting point — that the basic minimum of transparency we have for the analog world should apply to the digital world, especially given the scale of the spending, and recent reports of abuse and foreign interference. There’s no reason that campaign finance regulation’s recently contested past will be a barrier to this measure.

Basic transparency standards for big ad buys aren’t controversial in the analog world, and they shouldn’t be for the digital sphere either. Our domestic focus should be on getting basic standards applied online as soon as possible, because we have bigger challenges ahead for political influence in America.

Today’s introduction is great, great news, though: the Honest Ads Act represents common sense, and bipartisan support, for integrity in our elections.

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