Timothy Roemer and Zachary Wamp
During the 2016 election, hostile foreign powers unleashed unprecedented, anonymous attacks on the American people through the largest online platforms, the equivalent of strafing our TV sets with lies and disinformation during the 1960s and 1970s. The Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-linked “troll farm” spent more than $100,000 on thousands of Facebook advertisements linked to the election and divisive social issues.
Due to the highly-targeted nature of the advertisements and private platforms they infected, neither the wider public nor civil society has been able to see the content of the ads. The government and watchdog groups were similarly left in the dark until after the election, subsequently, when the damage was potentially done. The national security implications of foreign entities continuing to meddle in American elections are a clear and present danger to the United States.
Yet, nearly a year later and despite months of investigations, lawmakers of both parties have been slow to act. Meanwhile, the country remains vulnerable to foreign interference. In his recently published book “The Darkening Web,” Harvard Professor Alexander Klimburg wrote that “the rise of cyberspace has breathed new life into former Soviet military strategy.” He goes on to observe that “Russia’s philosophy of information conflict is much older than the United States.”
The bottom line is that current law does not in any way protect our election system from this type of foreign intervention, and every free society should have adequate protections in place to maintain open, fair and unfettered elections. We still do not know who is trying to sow disinformation and propaganda campaigns across American-made digital platforms where hundreds of millions of Americans communicate and organize.
The newly introduced Honest Ads Act aims to finally address the deficiencies in political disclosure law that allow foreign actors to attack the United States anonymously. The carefully crafted, bipartisan, bicameral legislation is sponsored in the Senate by Rules Committee Ranking Democrat Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.), and Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.). It in the House by Reps. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) and Mike Coffman (R-Colo.).
The bill would address the critical problem that our 20th century laws are out of date and overmatched by the 21st century reality of political campaigns. Our current regime has us fighting cyber warfare with the equivalent of telegrams and the Pony Express. The Honest Ads Act would modernize our technological arsenal to combat foreign influence by ensuring that paid political ads on the largest online platforms are treated similarly to paid political advertisements on television and radio.
These transparency standards are not new. The bill uses longstanding Federal Communication Commission disclosure rules about broadcast advertisements, which have been in place for a decade, to better serve the digital medium. Private companies, such as Facebook and Google, would have to obtain information from the purchaser, the cost, the targeted audience, and what candidate or issue is the subject of each ad. This would give the American people enough information to understand who is attempting to influence their vote and allow government agencies to determine if the ad is impermissible foreign interference in U.S. politics.
Additionally, the Honest Ads Act subjects the platform and the ad purchaser to fines for failing to follow the law as a preventative measure against widespread abuse in the future, like the public saw in the 2016 election. Most importantly, this narrowly tailored legislation seeks to protect the First Amendment rights of Americans engaging in political debate. It is only targeted at the platforms who make millions or billions of dollars selling political ads, placing them on equal standing with broadcast radio and television.
Beyond this legislation, Congress must perform its oversight job and ask tough questions when Twitter and Facebook testify before the Senate and House Intelligence Committees next Wednesday. Republicans and Democrats in both legislative chambers should use the Honest Ads Act as the starting point for robust dialogue about the best practices necessary to reassure Americans their First Amendment rights are protected from domestic and foreign attack.
As Senator Klobuchar said at the press conference unveiling the bill, “Election security is national security.” Congress cannot allow hostile foreign powers to influence or impact U.S. elections. The failure to set aside partisan politics and move forward on this bipartisan legislation opens the possibility of ignoring the direct threat and sitting on our hands. It is time for Congress to fully embrace its obligation to protect the American people from a new form of enemy attacks called “cyber war.”
Timothy Roemer is a former U.S. ambassador to India, member of Congress from Indiana, and 9/11 commissioner. Zachary Wamp is a former member of Congress from Tennessee. They co-chair the Issue One Reformers Caucus, a bipartisan coalition of former members of Congress, Cabinet officials, and governors who advocate for solutions to fix democracy.