New York State’s 2018 democracy agenda will include more sunshine for online advertising

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While we welcomed the Federal Election Commission’s action on disclaimers for online advertising, that overdue shift is necessary but insufficient for our historic moment. The public deserves to know who is buying paid political advertising online. As Washington moves slowly to address the online disclosure gap, however, there’s hope that states will fill some of the void.

Today, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a new “democracy agenda to protect election integrity, including a first-in-the-nation state law to require disclosures and disclaimers for online political ads.

The legislative proposal, which is modeled upon the Honest Ads Act that Sunlight helped draft in Congress, would similarly expand the state’s definition of political communication (electioneering) to include paid digital and Internet advertising, require platforms to maintain a public file of paid political ads, and make reasonable efforts to prevent foreign actors from buying ads.

“What we saw during the last election was a systematic effort to undermine and manipulate our very democracy,” said Governor Cuomo, in a statement. “With these new safeguards, New York — in the strongest terms possible — will combat unscrupulous and shadowy threats to our electoral process, as well as break down fundamental barriers that for far too long have prevented New Yorkers from being heard and from exercising their right to vote.”

We strongly support states taking action to improve transparency and accountability in the 21st century, experimenting with different models for disclosure and disclaimers in our laboratories of democracy.

“Individuals, campaigns and committee are increasingly spending money online, and yet online ads have the least transparency of any platform that distributes them,” said Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation.

“Reforms that add much-needed transparency and accountability to online political advertising are urgently needed. The leadership New York State is demonstrating today shows that states don’t have to sit on the sidelines while Congress dithers. Disclaimers and public disclosure of paid political advertising online will inform voters, empower the electorate, and protect election integrity by shining a light on any shadowy actors seeking to influence the outcome of an election.”

We are heartened to continue see bipartisan and nonpartisan support for more transparency for online political ads on this shortest day of the year. We hope that legislators in states and on Capitol Hill are listening to the public on this count: according to an Issue One/Ipsos poll, 84% of Americans agree that online political ads should include a disclosure of who paid for them.

We were thrilled to hear how one of the nation’s foremost First Amendment scholars endorsed this bill.

“Sunlight, as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis observed, is the best disinfectant and more sunlight on who or what is paying for on-line political advertising is essential to a far more enlightened public,” said Floyd Abrams. “Governor Cuomo’s proposal is a major step in that direction, one that is not only consistent with the First Amendment but an embodiment of it.”

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