The FEC’s move to restart the regulatory process for rules governing digital advertising has consultants worried they could soon be hampered in their ability to reach voters online.
As part of the FEC’s reexamination of its small-item exemption, which covers some digital advertising, commissioners are also weighing whether to create a database of all campaign ads and ban “programmatic (automated) political ads from being sold,” according to Axios.
It stems from a Sept. 14 FEC open meeting during which Commissioner Ellen Weintraub (D) said the revelation that Russia-linked Facebook accounts bought $100,000 worth of Facebook ads during the 2016 cycle was cause to reexamine the feds’ digital advertising disclosure requirements
Reaction from digital practitioners was swift on Tuesday, with much of the harshest criticism reserved for the notion of banning programmatic.
“Requiring digital advertisers to disclose their ads, like the recent Facebook announcement is one thing,” Amanda Bloom of BASK Digital tweeted. “[B]locking basically all digital ads except the limited direct buys available would set political advertising back to the stone ages.”
Members of Congress “need to understand how much programmatic advertising was used to get them elected,” Bloom tweeted, noting TV’s gradual shift in the direction of programmatic.
“Banning programmatic advertising isn’t the answer, preventing foreign gov’t entities from buying ads is the issue,” tweeted A.J. Carillo, an account lead at the digital advertising and buying platform Centro.
The FEC’s rationale for revisiting it’s current rules: “Those regulations were designed for things like pens and bumper stickers that tend to be either physically handed to you, or plastered on a car,” Ellen Weintraub said during the FEC’s hearing earlier this month. “When things come over from the internet you really often have no idea where it’s coming from.”
She invited rep from Google, Facebook and Twitter to provide public comment on the issue during a 30-day period.
Revolution Messaging's Keegan Goudiss said the FEC wasn't going far enough by simply accepting comments. "Something as complex as digital requires a hearing with multiple viewpoints represented," said Goudiss, whose firm has tangled with the FEC over mobile ad disclaimers.
In the past, he noted, Republican commissioners "have avoided such hearings."
"Will they do so again after a foreign entity so easily circumvented their purpose,” Goudiss asked.
Ad platforms, Goudiss noted, also have a role to play in improving transparency: "What defines an 'ad' in the digital space is much different than traditional media."
“This regulation, if implemented, wouldn’t just affect the more traditionally labeled Demand Side Platforms, (DSP) such as Google’s Doubleclick, TubeMogul or RocketFuel. This would ban all political digital ads on Facebook, Twitter, and the argument could be made for search advertising as well,” Matt Capristo, VP of ad operations at IMGE, wrote Tuesday. “If digital political ads are neutered to the point where they disappear, or are no longer effective, not only do persuasion ads disappear, but the rest of these modern methods of civic engagement disappear as well.”
JC Medici, a partner in the recently launched 1828 Media, said he favored the database proposal, but like Capristo worried about a potential programmatic ban.
It’s a “prominent way ads are bought online, does not seem practical, and I don't fully comprehend what it would solve,” said Medici, who used to work at Rocket Fuel, a programmatic ad platform. “It would be similar to ask all brokerages to take stock orders over the phone instead of online through their account. It does not seem practical or reasonable.”
Other consultants said they were adopting a wait-and-see approach during the FEC process.
“As progressives we value transparency and support efforts by the FEC and others to bring more clarity and accountability to the political process,” DSPolitical’s Jim Walsh told C&E in an email. “We will be keeping an eye on specific proposals as they move forward to make certain those values are central to any changes in policy.”
The FEC’s move comes as lawmakers are also eyeing additional regulations on digital advocacy. Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn) last week started circulating plans for a bill that would require companies like Facebook to act like local TV stations and maintain a public file on all electioneering advertising done with more than a $10,000 budget.