McCain Backs Measure to Tighten Disclosure of Online Political Ads

By Byron Tau Features Dow Jones Newswires

A proposal to require social media companies to disclose information about political advertising on their platforms has drawn the support of a key Senate Republican.

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Sen. John McCain (R, Ariz.), a longtime proponent of stricter political advertising disclosure rules and spending restrictions, has signed onto a bill being written by two Senate Democrats that was prompted by concerns about Russian activity on social media during the 2016 election, according to a statement from his office.

The proposal -- which will be officially unveiled on Capitol Hill Thursday -- will require social media companies such as Facebook Inc. to keep a public repository of political advertising that runs on their platforms, similar to the rules governing broadcast television and radio advertising.

Democratic Sens. Mark Warner of Virginia and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota are the primary authors of the legislation. Mr. McCain is a leading Republican senator on national security issues and has successfully championed campaign-finance legislation in the past despite skepticism among GOP lawmakers.

In an interview Wednesday, Mr. McCain acknowledged disagreement within the Republican Party over greater regulation of money in politics but said he was having conversations with others in his caucus about the legislation.

A Facebook spokesman said: "We are open to working with lawmakers and reviewing any reasonable legislative proposals."

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The last major rewrite of campaign finance rules, the 2002 McCain-Feingold bill named for Mr. McCain and his partner on the bill, former Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold, was written when social media was in its infancy and played almost no role in political campaigns. Today, online political advertising is a billion-dollar business, and much of it falls outside the disclosure rules that govern other media.

Facebook announced in September that it had discovered about 500 "inauthentic" accounts responsible for $100,000 in advertising that it believes is linked to Russia. Facebook has handed information about those accounts over to the congressional committees investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Most of those ads uncovered by Facebook don't refer to any particular political candidate and wouldn't fall under the scope of the legislation proposed by Mr. Warner, Mr. McCain and Ms. Klobuchar -- something that they acknowledge is a challenge.

Mr. Warner said that his bill was a starting point designed to garner as much congressional support as possible. "What we want to try to do is start with a light touch," he told reporters this week.

Foreign nationals and governments are broadly barred from spending money to influence U.S. elections. U.S. law also tightly restricts propaganda material produced by foreign governments for domestic audiences. Paid online content that doesn't mention political candidates falls into a gray area.

According to the January report from the U.S. intelligence community, the highest levels of the Russian government were involved in directing the electoral interference to boost President Donald Trump at the expense of his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. Russia's tactics included efforts to hack state election systems; infiltrating and leaking information from party committees and political strategists; and disseminating through social media and other outlets negative stories about Mrs. Clinton and positive ones about the Mr. Trump, the report said.

In recent years, congressional Republicans have balked at Democratic proposals to curb the flow of money in the political process, with many arguing that such spending is protected by the Constitution's guarantees of free speech.

In 1976, the Supreme Court upheld the general principle that political spending is a form of speech but didn't preclude other regulation such as disclosure rules. In 2010, two more Supreme Court decisions allowed even more spending to flow into politics through outside groups such as super PACs and nonprofits, leading Democrats and independent government transparency advocates to call for stricter rules.

In a congressional hearing on Wednesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions signaled that the Trump administration might be open to new laws dealing with online political advertising.

"In this new fast-paced world with technology, perhaps there are needs to update it, and I would be pleased to work with you," Mr. Sessions told Ms. Klobuchar.

Deepa Seetharaman contributed to this article.

Write to Byron Tau at byron.tau@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 18, 2017 17:45 ET (21:45 GMT)