Please tell the FEC why you support more sunshine in online political ads

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Transparency and accountability in our politics have never been more important, and yet structural changes in how the public accesses and shares information has introduced more shadows instead of sunshine into public discourse. It’s clear that electioneering is taking place online, but who’s behind the communications is opaque, and the people buying the ads aren’t always filing with the Federal Elections Commission (FEC).

That should change, and YOU can do something about it. Today is the last day* for the public to take a stand and tell our nation’s top campaign regulator that our democracy needs to be updated for the 21st century.

The FEC asked the public what it should do. In answer, we urge you to submit a comment to the FEC asking the agency to revise its rules on disclaimers on certain communications made over the Internet. This video, embedded below, explains how to do it online:

Our own filing will look a lot like the post you’re reading right now, founded in the same principles that we have advanced for over a decade.

*UPDATE: Last night and this morning, we’ve noticed that the FEC submission form appeared to be experiencing issues, perhaps due to high volume of use. In response to our concern about 404s, the FEC informed us that its webpage to comment on this proceeding was, in fact, down last night and this morning. While they’ve fixed the problem, the regulator has (laudably!) extended the comment period through the weekend.

In a statement shared on Twitter, the FEC said that it has “extended the comment period on the ANPRM on Internet communication disclaimers for an additional business day, until 11:59 PM on Monday, November 13, 2017,” with more comments are accepted here: http://go.usa.gov/xnDCQ.

Why it’s time for change

As we highlighted in September, the United States of America has fallen off the online disclosure cliff that Sunlight has warned of for years.

The lack of transparency for political ad spending created a significant vulnerability in our public accountability laws that foreign entities and unscrupulous, unaccountable special interests are exploiting.

Congressional hearings made it clear to everyone that social media platforms were used by Russians used to influence the 2016 election. The full extent of that interference is still not understood publicly, even now, but there’s a growing of evidence that show when, how and who attempted to influence the election.

In 2015, former FEC chair Ann Ravel asked if the nation wanted Vladimir Putin or drug cartels to be influencing American elections?. She was prescient. The Honest Ads Act would mandate transparency & accountability to online paid political ads:

The status quo is not tenable. The American public should be able to instantly know who paid for a given political ad, whether it’s broadcast on TV or radio, printed in a newspaper, or shared on Internet platforms.

Online political ads should have clear, plain language disclaimers that connect to a verified entity. Every company that takes money to run political ads should maintain a publicly available file of those purchases.

This isn’t a radical notion: it’s how electioneering is handled on other media platforms! While more transparency was rendered to radio, TV and satellite stations by the Federal Communications Commission through the concerted legal action of Sunlight and our allies, “dark ads” have flourished online.

Self-regulation isn’t good enough after a decade of technology companies shirking the public interest for commercial interest, reaping billions of dollars in profits.

Faced with the prospect of legislative action, Twitter, Facebook and Google committed to voluntarily improving transparency about the political ads that appear on their platforms, modeling their plans for disclosures and disclaimers on the Honest Ads Act, as with Google announcing its intention to create a public database.

These commitments are welcome, meaningful and constructive, but insufficient to the information needs of the public and improving the health of democracy. Technology companies can and should integrate more transparency, accountability and ethics about paid political advertising into their platforms, by default, but that’s not enough to encode core public interest values into the public squares of today.

Congress should act to ensure disclosures and disclaimers are neither discretionary nor uneven. Adding disclaimers and disclosures don’t mean renouncing business or chilling speech, any more than has been the case for TV or radio stations.

They would make it harder for political actors and entities that cannot ethically or legally participate in elections to do so, which is one reason the Honest Ads Act has a significant and vital foreign policy constituency.

You should know that we haven’t been sitting idle this year. When Congress asked us for ideas, we helped draft the Honest Ads Act. We are proud and honored to contribute to a constructive legislative remedy, but it isn’t enough.

No singular bill, regulation or order can solve all of the issues that social media present for our democracy, but the Honest Ads Act would add much needed transparency and accountability to platforms that did not embed those democratic values in by default, and the FEC should be empowered to act.

Today, we and tens of thousands of Americans are telling the Federal Election Commission to reopen a rulemaking to consider revising regulations for online communications that mandate disclosure and disclaimers for paid political advertising and hold a public hearing with the technology companies that serve ads to billions of people on the Internet.

Secrecy enables fraud and lies to breed in the shadow. Sunshine disinfects corruption and clarifies confusion about what happened, when, where, to whom, how, and why it matters.

We urge YOU to submit a comment to the FEC today to extend the definition of electioneering to online communications and require disclaimers and disclosures for paid political advertising on Internet platforms.

In the 21st century, the expectations of citizenship don’t stop at the ballot box. We need the public to call on government to upgrade our institutions to meet the demands of a rapidly evolving networked sphere. Thank you for being an active participant in our democracy.

UPDATE: Thank you for standing up for sunshine in government! 150,000+ public comments submitted!

At midday on November 9, U.S. Senators and a coalition of good governance advocates and progressive activists convened at the U.S. Capitol to celebrate an unprecedented public response, with over 150,000 public comments filed in the FEC’s proceeding. You can watch the remarks of the politicians and organization leaders in the video embedded below.

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