How Facebook fought to keep political ads in the shadows

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Facing mounting criticism, Mark Zuckerberg announced last week that Facebook will overhaul its approach to political ads, bringing more transparency to the process. Facebook users will soon be able to see who paid for an ad, Zuckerberg said, and when users visit an advertiser’s page, they will be able to see all of the ads that those advertisers are running. The changes were announced as lawmakers were considering similar regulatory measures.

Those may seem like minor changes compared to the requirements long placed on political ads in other mediums, like TV and print, which must include disclaimers on their ads. Online political ads, however, have historically been far more opaque. “The inadequacy of the FEC’s current regulations makes it practically impossible for both regulators and citizens to determine if the funding for a political advertisement online came from a domestic source or an enemy abroad,” former FEC commissioner Ann Ravel wrote in a column for Politico before the announcement.

Facebook’s policy changes and lawmakers’ calls for new rules illustrate just how much has changed in a decade — for both Facebook and government regulators. When the FEC instituted rules in 2006 governing political advertising on the internet, it took a light-touch approach, and was even hailed for it. Many feared that government overreach would put internet users like political bloggers into legal jeopardy. Instead, the agency’s rules forced campaigns to disclose when they bought ads, but imposed few special restrictions. The Washington Post wrote that “the vote drew praise from most ideological quarters, as well as from several watchdog groups.”

Facebook was still at an infantile phase of development in 2006. That September, the company started making accounts available to anyone older than 13 with a valid email address, after previously supporting only certain addresses. Even as the company rapidly expanded, it argued that it could not find a workable way to make its ads more transparent. In 2011, attorneys for the company wrote to the FEC to request that the agency formally allow political ads to continue being displayed without disclaimers. The company’s filing argued that “a disclaimer on Facebook ads would be inconvenient and impracticable.” Earlier, Google had made a similar argument about search ads, although it included URLs to more information, and the FEC did not stop either from continuing as they had before. The companies argued, mostly successfully, that their ads should be regulated in ways “more akin to skywriting” than TV commercials, says Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation.

But as online platforms grew, controversy began to arise over the exact borders of those rules. In 2012, a pro-coal group ran ads on YouTube that were critical of Democrats, raising questions over whether the videos needed a disclaimer, since they appeared only on the internet and were posted for free. The FEC was ultimately deadlocked in a partisan 3-3 decision, leaving the door open for similar ads. “They were essentially told, ‘it’s all good,’” Ravel says.

In 2014, after some updates were proposed, Republicans came out to oppose any changes, as did some civil liberties groups, which again argued that changes would come dangerously close to infringing on free speech. “This could have a huge impact on free and low-cost online political speech, especially if new regulations place complicated and burdensome record-keeping and disclosure requirements on bloggers, YouTube posters, or other online speakers, including those who post anonymously,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote.

Now, it seems, some sort of overhaul may again be on the table. FEC commissioner Ellen Weintraub recently looked to reopen the process for creating new rules. “It has been more than a decade since the commission has fully examined how best to regulate political spending on the Internet — an eternity in online years,” she wrote in an accompanyingWashington Post op-ed. Still, Ravel says she’s skeptical that it will amount to anything more than an extremely narrow change. “I really don’t believe it,” she says.

A group of Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, wrote to the FEC last week requesting new guidelines for political ads. Some lawmakers may go even further: The Washington Postreports that new legislation being considered would regulate political ads online.

In that context, it’s easy to see Facebook’s changes to political ads as an attempt to self-impose regulations before the government can force its hand. The change may be a belated one, considering how Facebook has argued for so long that restrictions like disclaimers are impractical. “For political committees, the Internet has become ‘the most accessible marketplace of ideas in history,’” Facebook wrote in its 2011 FEC filing. In light of the news about Russian advertisements, it seems Facebook underestimated just how accessible their platform has become.