Russian meddling spurs bid to tighten disclosure rules for online ads

A trio of senators is looking to tighten campaign finance laws governing online ads in response to Russian interference in last year’s election.

Tech companies like Facebook and Google are readying to try to weaken the measure. And they may be getting help from a top Democratic lawyer and voting rights champion.

Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), and John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Thursday unveiled the Honest Ads Act, which would require that political ads on social media adhere to the same disclosure rules as TV and radio ads.

A bipartisan companion bill also has been introduced in the House.

Facebook has acknowledged that a group with ties to the Russian government spent $100,000 in ads around the time of the election, though the real figure may be higher. The senators say the lack of disclosure rules may have made it easier for the ads to gain traction.

“This is the first substantive bipartisan piece of legislation that’s trying to — with a very light touch, because we don’t want to slow down innovation, or restrict free speech or people’s access to the internet — to deal with the problem that we saw in 2016 in terms of foreign interference in our electoral process,” Warner told reporters on Wednesday.

Warner (pictured), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, has led the charge against Russian interference in the election.

Tech companies like Facebook and Google are reportedly preparing a major lobbying campaign against the bill, with help from a leading Democratic election law firm, Perkins Coie.

Marc Elias, a lawyer with the firm, is under fire after a New York Times report that in 2011, he helped Google and Facebook in a bid to win an exemption to existing disclosure rules for online ads. (Google was granted the exemption. Facebook wasn’t, but acted as if it was).

Elias told the Times that the Russian-linked ads from last year that Facebook has admitted to running wouldn’t have been subject to the disclosure rules anyway, because, according to Facebook, they didn’t mention the candidates or the election.

Still, the news puts Elias in an awkward position. In recent years, he’s brought numerous challenges to restrictive voting laws, on behalf of the Democratic party, emerging as easily the single most important Democratic lawyer in the fight over voting rights.

Elias also was the top lawyer for Hillary Clinton’s campaign — which appears to have been the prime victim of Russia’s interference. His work for Facebook and Google may put him at odds with some in his party, which is largely unified around the need to limit foreign interference in U.S. elections.

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