National News

Gov. Cuomo to Propose More Disclosure for Online Political Ads in New York

Posted December 21, 2017 6:32 p.m. EST

ALBANY, N.Y. — Following a federal push for more disclosure, and amid investigations into Russian meddling into U.S. elections, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo will propose legislation next year to close legal loopholes in New York regarding political ads on the internet, with the goal of pressuring companies like Facebook to root out foreign-based interlopers in online campaigns.

The proposal, to be announced Thursday, closely hews to a federal bill introduced in October by a pair of Democratic senators — Mark Warner of Virginia and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota — and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona. That bill, the Honest Ads Act, would require internet companies to reveal who is paying for political advertising on their sites by amending federal election law, which dates to the early 1970s, to include “paid internet or paid digital communication.” Print, radio and television are already subject to such regulations.

Similarly, the New York proposal would add internet and digital advertisements to state election law governing disclosure, a requirement that results in the familiar, “This ad was paid for ...” announcements on television and radio.

Cuomo’s proposal, which would require approval from a divided New York legislature, would also require that digital companies that receive money for ads maintain a publicly accessible file showing which person or group is responsible for their content.

That public-file provision is also part of the federal bill, though the proposed federal bench marks for such disclosure seemingly target larger companies with at least 50 million unique monthly viewers. The proposed New York law would likely have lower thresholds for disclosure, likely set by state regulators, according to Alphonso David, the governor’s counsel.

Finally, the New York proposal would stipulate that online platforms “make reasonable efforts” to police ads to make sure that foreign individuals and entities are not paying for them, an activity which is a violation of state and federal law. That requirement is also part of Warner, McCain and Klobuchar’s bill.

All told, the New York bills would “combat unscrupulous and shadowy threats to our electoral process,” according to a statement from Cuomo, after “a systematic effort to undermine and manipulate our very democracy” during the 2016 presidential campaign.

The governor’s push for new internet laws is expected to be a part of raft of other election-related proposals in 2018, which is an election year for every state legislative office and statewide position, including Cuomo’s. That will include another effort to legalize early voting, a practice that is already in place in many states, as well as same-day voter registration and automatic voter registration. Cuomo and the Democrat-led state Assembly have expressed support for such ideas as recently as last year. But they have foundered in the Republican-led Senate.

On the issue of online ads, Cuomo, a second-term Democrat who is a purported presidential contender, has lined up statements of support from Warner and Klobuchar. And initial reaction from election law experts suggested that such ideas would be an improvement on current disclosure requirements.

“The more transparency we have as far who is putting out ads and messages, the better informed the voter is,” said Jerry H. Goldfeder, a veteran New York elections lawyer.

The federal effort has been met by a significant lobbying effort by the tech industry to help shape possible regulations. Whether such an effort would be mounted in Albany is unclear, though giants like Google and Facebook keep lobbyists on retainer in the state capital.

Paul Seamus Ryan, the vice president of policy and litigation for Common Cause, a nonprofit that pushes for government accountability and supports the federal bill, says that expanding disclosure rules to online advertisements is an idea that states like New York should embrace. “It makes good sense at federal level and makes good sense at a state level, too,” Ryan said.

The public-filing requirement, however, might be trickier to implement, said Ryan, who wondered how strong enforcement of the “reasonable efforts” clause would be at a state level, which he called “pretty weak tea.”

“There are stronger ways to address foreign meddling in U.S. elections,” he said. “But it's an improvement on the status quo.”

According to the governor’s office, violations of the proposed rules would carry fines of up to $1,000 per incident. David said that enforcement for such proposals would fall to the state Board of Elections, whose performance has not been immune to controversy in years past.

David added that the proposals were meant to address “a huge gaping hole” in state election law and require billion-dollar internet companies to exercise “due diligence in posting political advertising.”

“Why is it that individuals have to register to place a political ad in the newspaper,” he said, “but not if they are posting it online?”