Democratic bills crack down on political ad microtargeting online

Representative Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., Speaks during a rally in the Capitol to call the Senate to vote on the House Democrats’ prescription drugs and health care package Wednesday, May 15, 2019 .

Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images

Two new Democratic proposals aim to crack down on how political campaigns can target small groups of voters on platforms like Facebook and Google.

The latest announcement comes from representative Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., Whose “law banning micro-targetted political ads” would limit how political campaigns could target their messages online. David Cicilline, D-R.I., announced last week he would introduce a similar measure on Tuesday, the “Law protecting democracy against disinformation”.

Cicillin’s bill would limit targeting to location, age and gender, while Eshoo’s bill would only allow political advertisers to target voters based on wide geodependent or those who chose to receive targeted announcements. Both would include a private right of action, so that those alleging a violation could bring an action.

Microtargeting generally refers to the act of displaying advertisements to a restricted audience based on certain characteristics, interests and even postal codes. This practice prompted a scrutiny following the 2016 presidential election, when U.S. officials learned of targeted disinformation campaigns by Russian actors. In recent years, leading academics and several Democrats, including Commissioner of Canada Elections Ellen Weintraub, have called on technology platforms to revise their policies to limit how political campaigns can reach a subset of voters. These critics say that the fine splicing of the public can mask harmful messages from the public.

Technology platforms have taken steps to make their political advertising processes more transparent. Facebook and Google, for example, both have searchable archives where everyone can search for the people and money behind political ads on their services.

Facebook has remained firm on its policies of allowing microtargeting and refusing to verify politicians’ advertisements (except those that include disinformation related to the coronavirus). Google said it would remove the ability for advertisers to upload their own third-party voter lists to target. Twitter went further, completely banning political advertising.

Sophisticated targeting tools are part of what has made digital platforms like Facebook and Google valuable tools for political advertisers. Advertisers appreciated the opportunity to spend their limited funds more effectively by targeting only voters who they thought were receptive to a certain advertisement based on demographics, online interests or location. Such targeting tends to be much narrower than that available on traditional channels such as television, which limits the possibility that advertisers will waste some of their money on non-receptive viewers.

The bills are expected to draw attention, with several Conservatives previously criticizing the technology platform’s tighter targeting policies. After Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced the company’s decision to ban political ads on his platform, President Donald Trump’s campaign manager Brad Parscale tweeted that it was ” another attempt by the left to silence Trump and the Tories. “

With the presidential election in a few months, Congress has yet to adopt another proposed reform to bring political advertising laws in tune with the digital age: The Honest Ads Act. The bill, originally introduced in October 2017, would require platforms to keep rigorous records of political advertising spending and take measures to prevent foreign actors from buying political ads. It was reintroduced last May by Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Mark Warner, D-Va., And Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

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