After over two months of deliberation and two lengthy meetings, the Federal Election Commission handed down an advisory opinion on October 12 telling Google it will essentially not require disclosure in Google AdWords copy from political advertisers.
Google had requested the disclaimer exemption from the FEC in August under the “small items” exemption, arguing that lengthy disclaimers could not be conveniently included in short campaign ads of 95 characters or less. The decision allows Google to run political ads without disclaimers about the sponsor directly in the ad, but a URL of the sponsor’s website needs to be included in the ad along with a full disclaimer on the ad landing page.
The FEC engaged in lengthy and often-spirited debate over the issue, but the October 12 opinion does not necessarily settle the matter definitively. The FEC commissioners did not achieve the four votes required to provide an official answer to Google’s inquiry, but instead reached consensus that Google would not violate regulations if political ads include only the sponsor’s URL along with a link to a page that provides full disclosure.
Google’s request that political ads be exempt from disclaimer requirements was supported by Facebook and Aristotle International, among others, but critics argue the exemption guts the spirit of disclosure regulations and could potentially spill over to affect disclaimer requirements for other forms of media, including television advertisements.
Facebook’s lawyers submitted a letter independently to the FEC noting that commission regulations exempt bumper stickers, pins, buttons, pens, and other small items from onerous disclaimer requirements.
The final opinion passed by a four-to-two vote, with Republican Commissioner Caroline Hunter and Democratic Commissioner Steven Walther voting against it, but concerns expressed about the decision and the process suggest that an ensuing debate and possible reconsideration are likely.