National

Why Twitter and Google aren’t supporting the Honest Ads Act as Facebook endorses it

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington on Monday, to meet with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Zuckerberg will testify Tuesday before a joint hearing of the Commerce and Judiciary Committees about the use of Facebook data to target American voters in the 2016 election.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington on Monday, to meet with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Zuckerberg will testify Tuesday before a joint hearing of the Commerce and Judiciary Committees about the use of Facebook data to target American voters in the 2016 election. AP

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg plans on Tuesday to endorse giving the government more power over political advertisements on internet platforms. But other leading tech companies and lawmakers suggest it won’t become law anytime soon.

Meanwhile, Zuckerberg can use his support for more government oversight to help defuse tension at congressional hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday. The Facebook founder and chief executive officer will be the sole witness.

“Hearings make for great political theater, but passing legislation is a whole different ball game,” said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at New America with an expertise in lobbying.

Twitter and Google have withheld public support for more government involvement. Neither has condemned the legislation, meaning they’re not concerned about it passing this year. Both companies said when the bill was announced in October that they would be working with lawmakers and supported improved transparency.

Facebook and Twitter hired lobbyists last year that listed the Honest Ads Act under specific lobbying issues, according to public disclosure forms, but Google, Twitter and Facebook have all been focusing more lobbying on issues such as data privacy and cybersecurity.

Twitter and Google are not facing the same public image problem as Facebook and therefore don’t feel the need to bolster that image politically, Drutman said.

If the companies do start speaking more publicly on the bill or others like it, it’s likely they see it has a chance of success and want to participate in shaping the legislation.

Until then, they don’t want to get involved in Facebook’s controversies, Drutman said.

“If someone is launching gunfire, you stay low,” he said.

A spokeswoman for Twitter said Monday the company had no update to the fall statement. A spokeswoman for Google did not return a request for comment.

Facebook’s comments in October about the legislation mirrored Google and Twitter. But with Facebook facing controversy over election issues and data privacy — most recently over the platform improperly granting Cambridge Analytica access to the data of as many as 87 million users — Zuckerberg has changed his position.

What are you sharing publicly on Facebook? Who has access to your data on the platform? Users are asking themselves these questions in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data breach. You can follow these steps to take back some measure of control.

An advance copy of that testimony was released Monday by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, where Zuckerberg will appear Wednesday. He will testify Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees.

“Election interference is a problem that’s bigger than any one platform, and that’s why we support the Honest Ads Act,” Zuckerberg said. “This will help raise the bar for all political advertising online.”

The act would regulate digital political ads in the same way as political ads on TV and the radio, requiring digital platforms to make “reasonable efforts” to ensure foreign entities are not buying the ads to influence the American electorate.

It also requires platforms with more than 50 million monthly users to retain a public file of advertisements purchased by a person or group who spends more than $500 total on published ads.

The bill has languished, though it’s slowly gaining more cosponsors in both the House and the Senate without any public actions or votes.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who met with Zuckerberg on Monday, said there isn’t much Republican appetite to pass a bill in the coming months, though he talked with Zuckerberg about Facebook potentially limiting the ability of political campaigns or groups to purchase advertisements on the site.

Nelson is a cosponsor of the bill. The Senate version has 18 Democratic sponsors and GOP sponsor, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. The House version has about an equal number of Republican and Democrat sponsors.

“My understanding is they have a three-pronged effort now to try and go out and determine who are the fake sites that would be generating fake news and then on sites that appear to be legitimate to check the veracity through third parties, checking the veracity of the message,” Nelson said. “Is that going to be enough? I don’t know the answer to that.”

A tech industry official who declined to be named said there are a few issues with the bill that need to be resolved before widespread support is possible.

“The difference between election and issue ads is one area of concern,” they said. “Vague definitions create problems for platforms and regulators alike as they are forced to make decisions about what is or isn’t an election ad.”

Drutman said Facebook has nothing to lose by coming out in support of the legislation, because its public trust has fallen so low that regulation would be a benefit.

“They can say, ‘Look, now we have regulation, we have to do this, so you know these sources are legitimate,’” Drutman said.

McClatchy reporter Alex Daugherty contributed to this report.

Kate Irby: 202-383-6071, @kateirby

  Comments