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Facebook: What is the Honest Ads Act?

Zuckerberg faces 2nd day in Congress
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg faces second day of testimony 14:18

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg has expressed support for one specific piece of legislation: The Honest Ads Act. 

The bipartisan bill is fast gaining traction -- Twitter said Tuesday that it supports it too. 

So what would the Honest Ads Act do? 

The goal is to provide more transparency for online political advertisements, sparked by the revelations that Russian nationals bought political ads on social networks including Facebook. 

It was introduced last October by Senators Mark Warner (D-Virginia), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) and John McCain (R-Arizona), and here's how the bill proposes to fix the problem.

Facebook and its rivals would create a public record of political ads

Digital platforms with more than 50 million unique monthly visitors would have to maintain a "complete record" of advertisers who have spent more than $500 on ads during the previous year. 

Those records would be available to the public, and include a digital copy of the ad, as well as a description of the target audience (say, women over 25 who vote Republican.) 

It would also include the ad rate, the name of the candidate or office that the ad was supporting, and the contact information of the ad's purchaser. 

Ensure "reasonable efforts" to keep foreign nationals from buying political ads

Facebook and its rivals would need to make "reasonable efforts" to ensure that foreign nationals didn't buy ads that attempted to influence elections. 

That's something that Facebook says it's already doing, with Zuckerberg explaining in his Congressional testimony that his company is in an "arm's race" with Russia to keep its agents from infiltrating the service with fake profiles, ads and posts. 

Expands "public communication" to include digital services

This may seem like a no-brainer, given that the 46-year-old Federal Election Campaign Act's definition of "public communication" doesn't include paid Internet or digital messages. 

Instead, it currently is limited to older forms of media, such as broadcast TV and newspapers.

The Federal Election Campaign Act was designed to regulate political campaign spending at a time when the Internet was in an early development stage and only used by academics and researchers. 

The Honest Ads Act would also expand FECA's definition of electioneering communication to include paid messages on Internet services. 

Why Facebook is supporting it

Zuckerberg on Tuesday said his company is "already implementing it." He admitted his company was slow to react to Russian interference, and supporting the act may be one way to forestall more intrusive regulation for the technology industry, which is one of the most lightly regulated industries in the U.S., according to Merrill Lynch analysts in an April research note.

The tech industry is subject to 27,000 regulations, compared with 215,000 for the manufacturing sector and 128,000 for the finance industry, Merrill Lynch said. 

But whether the Honest Ads Act would be effective is debatable. For instance, it wouldn't be unimaginable for Russian nationals to set up multiple accounts and buy ads for less than $500, avoiding the reporting requirement of the act. 

In the meantime, the journalism site ProPublica is asking consumers to report campaign ads on Facebook. The crowdsourced effort is called the Political Ad Collector, and its goal is to track ads ahead of German elections on Sept. 24. 

"We hope that by monitoring political advertising on Facebook, we can increase the transparency and accountability of elections around the world," ProPublica said.

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