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FEC Seeks to Bring Campaign Finance Rules to the Internet Age

So far, no part of the government has done anything to strengthen protections against foreign political spending. The FEC’s proposed new rules could be an important first step.

March 19, 2018

The Federal Election Commission is considering changes to the transparency rules for political ads on the internet. The current rules were adopted in the pre-iPhone days of 2006, and are sorely in need of an update to reflect the way we use the internet today. What’s more, improving transparency is a crucial step in protecting our elections from the kind of Russian interference we saw in 2016.

It’s no secret at this point that Russia exploited giant regulatory loopholes to sponsor ads meant to cause chaos during the 2016 elections. Moscow directed “trolls” to pose as Americans online and spread divisive political messages about controversial topics from immigration to gun control, in addition to weighing in on the presidential candidates.

While it’s hard to measure the impact such ads had on the election’s outcome, the fact that foreign dollars played a part in an American campaign goes against decades of law and precedent. Since its founding days, the U.S. has had rules prohibiting other countries from influencing our elections.

The special counsel in the Russia investigation, Robert Mueller, has now indicted some of those trolls and the St. Petersburg company they worked for, the Internet Research Agency. Meanwhile the “Big Three” internet companies – Facebook, Google, and Twitter – are conducting internal investigations and have also promised voluntary changes to make it harder for trolls to take advantage of their platforms.

But that will not be enough to prevent the next attack on our elections. We need strong, preventative rules that apply across the online ad industry. And so far, no part of the government has done anything to strengthen protections against foreign political spending.

That’s why the FEC’s deliberations here are so important. Their proposals would strengthen the rules for online ad disclaimers – information in the ad about who paid for it. Election ads on television, radio, and print have long been required to include these “paid for by” notices. Yet as the rules stand today, many online political ads are not required to have a disclaimer at all.

To be sure, crafty trolls may lie about their identity, even if there are new disclosure rules. But even scant information they might provide for a disclaimer would leave clues for the public and law enforcement to trace the money’s source – the kind of clues Mueller’s team followed to uncover the scheme of the Internet Research Agency trolls. Better disclaimer rules would leave more of these leads and deter foreign mischief in the first place.

And even setting foreign interference aside, disclaimers are crucial to making our elections more transparent. They inform audiences who’s trying to sway their vote. If you know who paid for an ad, you’ll know better about which special interests or individuals support certain candidates – and in turn, that can help you make a judgment call about how much to trust that message.

When Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee issued a summary conclusion of their Russia investigation, they recommended improvements in “campaign finance transparency.” The proposed FEC rule changes are one part of the comprehensive overhaul needed to accomplish that transparency.

At the Brennan Center, we’ve proposed that online ads be regulated like those in other mass media across the board, including reporting requirements and a clear ban on foreign nationals buying them. And we believe dark money spending by groups that don’t disclose their donors must be eliminated, since foreign donors can use them to hide their influence (as we pointed out in a new report on dark money fueled nonprofits). And corporations and other business entities with substantial foreign ownership should be included in the ban on foreign election spending.

But all of those changes require action by Congress, which has yet to enact any reforms, even as the 2018 elections loom. For now, it’s crucial for the FEC to act.

The agency’s next step is to collect comments from the public, which can be submitted on the FEC website by referencing the proposal, REG 2011–02.