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Why ad disclosure rules don't apply to Google and Facebook

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

Lawmakers and regulators are looking for ways to create transparency around political ads on Google and Facebook, in light of the revelations of Russian-bought political ads. But how did we get here in the first place? Google sought an exemption and Facebook sought a clarification from Federal Election Commission laws several years ago, and the FEC let both groups follow different disclosure regulations from those used on other platforms, like TV and radio.

Why it matters: It will be hard for the FEC, usually divided equally among party lines, to come to a consensus around regulating political ads online, according to sources within the FEC — meaning that any major disclosure efforts would have to come from Congress.

What's next: Members of Congress are expected to introduce a new bill about political ad disclosures in a few weeks after the Senate and House recesses.

The back story:

  • Five years ago, Facebook asked the Federal Election Commission for clarification about the rules requiring the disclaimers. Facebook argued that display ads on its platform should be regulated the same way certain political materials are regulated, like pencils and buttons. The FEC couldn't come to a majority decision, and so Facebook political ads today still don't require the same disclaimers as TV ads. Even if they did, they would be nearly impossible to regulate given Facebook's scale.
  • Six years ago, the FEC ruled in favor of Google when it sought an exception for political ads on its platform, again arguing that such ads were character-limited and they couldn't alter the format for political advertisers. "Text ads have a headline which can consist of up to 25 characters, and two lines of text and a display URL which can consist of up to 70 characters," the filing reads. "This format applies to all advertisers, regardless of whether they are political committees."
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