Tech Bi-Partisan Bill in uncertainty

Victoria Liu, Editor of News and Opinion

After the tumultuous 2016 presidential election, rumors about Russian interference abounded.  Facebook disclosed recently that it identified a Russian company that bought $100,000 worth of ads on hot-button political issues. The Russian company is intricately linked to the Kremlin.

According to Alex Stamos,  Facebook’s chief security officer, more than 3000 of the ads focus on divisive cultural issues, including race, gun control, and immigration. The ads were published online in 470 false accounts between June 2015 to May 2017, influencing the American public before and after the election.

Responding to the Russian meddling through social media, the Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Senator Mark Warner of Virginia introduced a bipartisan bill that would force internet companies like Facebook and Google to disclose the buyer of online advertisements.

However, this move was countered by a group of lobbyists from tech companies to thwart this legislative effort. Marc E. Elias, one senior advisor of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, stands on the side of tech companies. According to the New York Times, before revelations of Russian meddling, Marc E. Elias helped internet companies obtain exemptions from the Federal Election Commission.

With support from both the right and the left, The Federal Election Commission allowed internet companies not to disclose private information. The Commission argued that in their justification, the internet is “a unique and evolving mode of mass communication and political speech that is distinct from other media in a manner that warrants a restrained regulatory approach.”

The litigious issue of political speech and money runs deep in America’s political climate. In Buckley v. Valeo (1976), the majority of Supreme Court Judges ruled that a restriction of spending money for political speech constitutes limitations on expression. In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in 2010, the Supreme Court again ruled that the First Amendment right of freedom of speech prohibits the federal government from restricting political speech funded by corporations.

John McCain, the senior senator from Arizona and previous presidential candidate, has pushed for campaign finance reform, resulting in the McCain-Feingold Act in 2002. The McCain Feingold Act addresses soft money and proliferation of advocacy ads. Again, Senator McCain leads efforts to push for reform.

Along with Senator McCain in joint efforts, Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Mark Warner of Virginia said on October 18th  in a statement that the bipartisan Senate bill would “prevent foreign actors from influencing our elections by ensuring that political ads sold online are covered by the same rules as ads sold on TV, radio and satellite.”

In my interview with Will Allan, the humanities teacher of Honors Constitutional Debates at Webb, he said, “The issue here boils down whether the federal government has the constitutional power to force private companies to disclose information. Because the constitution does not grant the government power over private businesses, private companies do not have to disclose information, unless there is a present national security danger. The implication of Russia’s interference in the election is a tricky question. But, McCain’s move likely stems from his political motives, being a vocal opponent of President Trump. Though McCain questions the legitimacy of the election, not every member of the Congress will abide by that.”

Regardless of the tech lobbyist’s effort to thwart the effort, the constitutionality of the bill is still in question. Surely, the bill will face more difficulties to pass, as it moves through the Congress.