Facebook told the U.S. government that it would support limited new federal rules requiring companies and campaigns to disclose more information about online political ads.
But the social giant — in comments filed with the Federal Election Commission on Monday — did not appear to wade into what should be done about issues-related political ads, the kinds of ads purchased by Russian agents in an attempt to sow social unrest around the 2016 presidential election.
Specifically, Facebook said it supported the FEC’s efforts to clarify when tech companies must disclose the origin of political ads, and what those disclosures must include.
Facebook also endorsed rules requiring greater transparency around candidate-focused ads that run in the weeks around Election Day, a move that would subject tech platforms to similar guidelines that currently apply to broadcasters and newspapers.
And Facebook asked the FEC to be open-minded about how those disclosures should look. The tech company recently announced that it would place an icon on political ads about federal candidates to help users learn more about them — and it touted that plan as it urged the agency to consider similarly flexible rules.
Taken together, Facebook’s comments appear to amount to a marked departure from 2011, when the company actually sought an exemption from FEC advertising regulations. At the time, Facebook said its ads were too small for the feds to require it to include text explaining who paid for it in the first place. In the end, the FEC never adopted any rules.
“Ad formats available on Facebook have expanded dramatically since that time,” Facebook said Monday. “Today, some of Facebook’s ads continue to be limited in size, with text limitations or truncations based on format and placement of the ad. But other formats allow for additional creative flexibility. Ads can now include videos, can include scrolling carousels of images, and can even cover the entire screen of a mobile device.”
But Facebook’s comments omitted a key element: A reference to issue-focused ads, or the kinds of ads that don’t mention a specific candidate or campaign, but push a viewpoint on a specific social issue, like gun control.
Many of the ads purchased by Russian accounts during last year’s presidential election were issue-based ads intended to stoke unrest around issues like immigration, gun control or Black Lives Matter. Those ads do not currently require any kind of disclosure, and Facebook is not interested in regulating them, its comments appeared to suggest.
Doing so could require the company to regularly make editorial decisions about what counts as an issues-focused ad and what doesn’t, and Facebook has long argued that it provides a neutral platform for all ideas. In contrast, Google was less shy about pointing out the troublesome issues ads — and asking the FEC for clarity as to how they should be handled, particularly when they are purchased by foreign entities.
For now, the FEC does not yet have a proposal. It is only seeking initial public comment, the deadline for which is today. All three tech giants — Facebook, Google and Twitter — have asked for clarity as part of that process, even if they disagree on what those rules should cover.
The FEC could ultimately decide to stand down in 2017, adopting no regulations now, much as it did in 2011. In the meantime, it’s why lawmakers on Capitol Hill have pursued a bill of their own. So far, though, Facebook, Google and Twitter each has declined to endorse the measure, called the Honest Ads Act, which would require them to make copies of political ads available for public inspection.
Tony Romm and Kurt Wagner writes about political news and you can keep up with recode.