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Consultants may soon have to grapple with new federal rules on digital ad disclosures, which could arrive before the end of the cycle as the FEC continues to advance a proposal to expand its oversight over online marketing by campaigns.
During an open meeting on Thursday, the commission unanimously approved a motion that kick starts its rulemaking process on digital disclaimers.
FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat who’s leading the push for great disclosure requirements online, called Thursday’s vote “an important first step.”
“This is not nearly the end of the fight to protect our democracy from foreign interference,” Weintraub said. “It’s not everything we could or should be doing. But it should serve as a signal to everyone in government whose job it is to protect our democracy that failure to act is no longer an option.”
Public comment on the FEC’s Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Internet Disclaimers has already drawn mixed reaction.
Facebook, in its comment dated Nov. 13, noted how challenging a uniform disclosure requirement could be for campaigns in the mobile era when voters see digital ads in different formats on different devices.
“The ways people physically interact with content also vary by medium,” the company said, noting that “a user can ‘rollover’ content on a desktop screen to see more information, but may not use a mouse or view rollovers on a mobile device.”
The company asked for “flexibility” for advertisers so that they can “meet their disclaimer obligations in innovative ways that take full advantage of the technological advances in communication the Internet makes possible.”
Some practitioners have offered a different take. Bully Pulpit Interactive published its recommendations for the FEC last month. When it comes to disclosures, the Democratic digital firm suggested the commission: “Implement a new disclosure icon that is visible alongside every political ad run online and allows people to see critical information about the sponsor including a) legal disclaimer and b) short description of the organization’s purpose.”
Meanwhile, the Coolidge-Reagan Foundation, a 501(c)3 advocating for free speech, echoed Facebook’s call for flexibility, but argued that the FEC should broaden “the regulatory exemption from disclaimer requirements for Internet-based communications,” and “consistently apply the small items and impracticabitity [sic] exemptions to Internet and social media communications.”
Ultimately, the organization said Nov. 8, the internet “must be left largely unregulated to preserve it as a convenient, inexpensive, easily accessible tool.”
It appears unlikely that that the FEC will accept the latter approach. Weintraub noted: “The FEC’s ability to shatter its usual gridlock and move forward shows the gravity of our current situation.”
The commission’s next step will be to draft, approve and publish the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which will provide the framework for the new oversight.
That will determine what questions will be addressed during the process governing “disclaimers on paid internet and digital communications.”
The FEC will continue to solicit public comment and potentially hold another open hearing in the near future, according to a spokeswoman for the commission.