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After Russian meddling, Google and Facebook shift their stance on a crucial issue for voters

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In this April 12, 2016, file photo, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks during the keynote address at the F8 Facebook Developer Conference in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

Facebook and Google told federal election officials they are open to greater oversight over the lucrative business of online political advertising, a shift for the tech giants who acknowledged recently that their ad platforms were exploited by Russian operatives during and after the 2016 election.

Google even took a step further than its rivals telling regulators that they should create a broad rule that would ban foreign entities from buying any kind of political ad aimed at influencing voters, not just the ones that mention candidates. Russian operatives generated and published “issue” ads on Facebook far more frequently than those that explicitly promoted candidates. Many of the issue ads sought to divide American society over politically charged topics such as immigration, Black Lives Matter, and gun rights.

Facebook did not offer a position on issue-based ads to election officials, despite its admission that 90 percent of the Russian-bought content that ran on its network did not mention Clinton or Trump.

The comments were submitted to the Federal Election Commission before a Monday night deadline as the agency considers new disclosure requirements for online advertisements. The discussion process at the FEC comes as lawmakers on Capitol Hill are pushing their own proposal to boost the transparency of digital ads, and as Silicon Valley faces heightened scrutiny in Washington.

Few companies have faced more pressure from lawmakers than Facebook, which has acknowledged that a Russian troll farm generated about 3,000 ads on its network as well as other free posts that collectively reached 126 million users. In its comments to federal election officials, the social network raised encouraged the FEC to make sure that its new rules would apply to all digital platforms, otherwise Russian hackers and other foreign actors would turn to less transparent platforms to distribute their messages.

Twitter also expressed openness to greater regulation of political ads, but asked officials to consider “the limited and valuable space available for political advertisements” on its platform.

Such positions marked a reversal from what some tech giants expressed in the past. In 2011, Facebook argued to the FEC that requiring the companies to run disclaimers with small, character-limited political ads on the Web would be inconvenient and impractical. The commission has long compelled television and radio stations to run such disclosures.

Currently, online ads have some requirements. Under FEC rules, all political committees, individuals and groups that pay to run ads on a Web platform must report their spending in public filings. The commission, however, has not drawn clear lines on what is required of small, character-limited political ads online — which were effectively exempted from disclaimers requirements by a 2010 FEC advisory opinion. 

FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub welcomed the input from the technology companies and said she hopes their support for updated rules will drive her Republican counterparts on the commission to act. “My job is to ensure that the American people get the information they need to evaluate the information they are seeing online,” she said.

The number of public comments to the FEC was in the thousands, she said, owing to the intense public interest in the Russian social media campaign. In previous commenting periods about political ad advertising, the number of people that submitted input was just seven, in another it was six, according to Weintraub.

“Public events show how important it is to understand where the information is coming,” she said. “I don’t think anyone wants to get their political information from a Russian troll farm.”

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