Rep. Eshoo Introduces Bill to Ban Microtargeted Political Ads

May 26, 2020
Press Release

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Congresswoman Anna G. Eshoo (CA-18) introduced the Banning Microtargeted Political Ads Act, legislation that strengthens our democracy by prohibiting the practice of microtargeting political ads.

The Banning Microtargeted Political Ads Act prohibits online platforms, including social media, ad networks, and streaming services, from targeting political ads based on the demographic or behavioral data of users. The bill applies to all electioneering communications and advocacy for candidates, and violations will be enforced by the Federal Election Commission and through a private right of action. Targeting ads to broad geographies – states, municipalities, and congressional districts – is permitted under the bill, as is targeting individuals who opt in to receive targeted ads.

“Microtargeting political ads fractures our open democratic debate into millions of private, unchecked silos, allowing for the spread of false promises, polarizing lies, disinformation, fake news, and voter suppression,” said Rep. Eshoo. “With spending on digital ads in the 2020 election expected to exceed $1.3 billion, Congress must step in to protect our nation’s democratic process.”

Microtargeting is enabled by the vast and unchecked use of behavioral and demographic information by online platforms, data brokers, and many other companies. A vast majority of Americans, 69% of Democrats and 75% of Republicans, oppose the use of personal information for microtargeting political ads, according to a recent Gallup poll. Rep. Eshoo has long called for a strong federal privacy law and introduced H.R. 4978, the Online Privacy Act, which is widely recognized by advocates, experts, and academics as the strongest privacy bill introduced in Congress. Rep. Eshoo also introduced H.R. 6866, the Public Health Emergency Privacy Act, a bicameral bill that protects civil liberties and privacy of coronavirus-related sensitive information.

Supporters of the Banning Microtargeted Political Ads Act include: Common Cause; Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW); the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC); the Center for Digital Democracy; MapLight; Access Now; Ambassador Karen Kornbluh and Ellen P. Goodman, senior fellows at the Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative at the German Marshall Fund; Yochai Benkler, Faculty Co-Director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, professor at Harvard Law School, and author of Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics; Frank Pasquale, professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law and author of The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information; Dipayan Ghosh, Co-Director of the Digital Platforms & Democracy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School, author of Terms of Disservice (forthcoming), and former technology policy advisor at the White House; and Cathy O’Neil, author of Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy and CEO of ORCAA, an algorithmic auditing firm.

To read a copy of the legislation, click HERE.

To read a section-by-section summary of the legislation, click HERE.

 

“The microtargeting of online political ads threatens the united character of our United States. Microtargeted ads are more likely to fuel divisiveness than those that face scrutiny – and counterargument – from a broader public. This is an important issue, and I’m glad to see it getting more attention,” said Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub of the Federal Election Commission.

“With big corporations and special interests having near-unfettered access to intricate data about all aspects of our lives, millions of Americans’ privacy rights and civil rights continue to be jeopardized,” said Aaron Scherb, Director of Legislative Affairs at Common Cause. “We appreciate Congresswoman Eshoo’s efforts to police microtargeting to ensure that our privacy and our civil rights are protected, and we hope that Congress will rein in social media platforms that largely operate in the ‘Wild West’ with no cop on the beat.”

“The past four years have seen a painful demonstration of the harms that can flow from unchecked misinformation campaigns that are designed to divide our nation. While there is more work to be done to bring transparency and accountability to digital political ads, the Banning Microtargeted Political Ads Act is a welcomed first step in updating our election laws to close a significant loophole and hold willful enablers accountable for their actions,” said Noah Bookbinder, Executive Director, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).

“The lack of strong privacy laws in the United States has led to system where individuals are targeted for political advertisements based on a complex web of data they don’t even know has been collected about them. The Banning Microtargeted Political Ads Act would prohibit this practice, banning platforms from targeting individuals with political advertisements based on their personal information. This is an important step forward in protecting Americans’ privacy and our democratic institutions. EPIC is proud to support the Banning Microtargeted Political Ads Act,” said Caitriona Fitzgerald, Interim Associate Director and Policy Director, Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

“Voters are now subjected to unprecedented online surveillance and unfair data targeting practices. Political microtargeting is fueling voter suppression, disinformation and manipulation of the electorate. Rep. Anna Eshoo’s bill will strengthen the voting rights of Americans by ensuring they are in control of their personal information – not political campaigns or giant digital platforms. By creating critically needed safeguards for federal elections in the 21st Century, Rep. Eshoo is championing the future of our democracy,” said Jeff Chester, Executive Director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

“Microtargeting is particularly dangerous when it comes to online political advertising, allowing political actors to spread harmful and divisive messaging with little transparency for voters. MapLight applauds this bill for working to eliminate this serious threat to democratic debate online,” said Daniel G. Newman, President and Co-Founder of MapLight.

“The microtargeting of political ads undermines the basic tenets of a healthy democracy. As we retreat deeper into our curated filter bubbles, discerning fact from fiction is extremely difficult, fueling pernicious polarization. Microtargeting also disparately impacts marginalized people, exemplified by the discriminatory voter suppression messaging in the 2016 presidential election. This bill is a welcome step in the right to direction to address what ails the U.S. political system,” said Eric Null, U.S. Policy Manager at Access Now.

“Representative Eshoo’s bill courageously tackles one of the biggest threats to fair elections: microtargeted political ads that exploit voters’ personal information to manipulate public opinion. Any restriction on advertising must respect free speech and also the freedom of voters to know what politicians are running on,” said Karen Kornbluh and Ellen P. Goodman, Senior Fellows at the Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative of the German Marshall Fund. Ambassador Kornbluh is Director of the Initiative and was U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Professor Goodman is co-director of the Rutgers Institute for Information Policy & Law and is a professor at Rutgers Law School.

“Targeted political advertising presents a serious risk to election integrity and transparent public discourse in this country. I welcome Representative Eshoo’s effort to lead the way on making sure that we bring political advertising regulation into the twenty-first century,” said Yochai Benkler, Faculty Co-Director of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, Professor at Harvard Law School, and author of Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics.

“Manipulative and misleading uses of personal data are common online. Microtargeting allows a candidate to be “all things to all people,” and is a force multiplier for the wealthiest candidates (who can spend the most on it). The Banning Microtargeted Political Ads Act is designed to help citizens take back control of the public sphere. It’s a critical step toward restoring trust in political messaging. This Act also respects First Amendment values. Anyone who wants to opt-in to specific microtargeting can do so. The bill just flips the default, ensuring that the vast majority of us who do not want such ads are not exposed to them, and do not have to engage in endless opt-outs to protect ourselves from them,” said Frank Pasquale, Professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law and author of The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information.

“The unchecked collection of personal data by the dominant tech platforms fuels microtargeting, which is core to the business model at the heart of the consumer internet industry. I thank Congresswoman Eshoo for introducing legislation that puts the interests of our democracy over market incentives,” said Dipayan Ghosh, Co-Director of the Digital Platforms & Democracy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School, author of Terms of Disservice (forthcoming), and former technology policy advisor at the White House.

“It used to be true that a politician could tell different things to different voters, but journalists would check whether the politician in question was saying different things to different people and write about it if they found conflicting political promises. That is impossible now because the different messages are shown privately on social media, and a given journalist only has his or her own profile. In other words, it's impossible to have oversight. The status quo, in other words, is bad for democracy. This new bill would address this urgent problem,” said Cathy O’Neil, author of Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy and CEO of ORCAA, an algorithmic auditing firm.

 

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