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Maryland pioneers state regulation of online political advertising

A computer screen displays logos associated with the social networking site Facebook.
A computer screen displays logos associated with the social networking site Facebook. (Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images)

At least one tech giant has stopped accepting state and local political ads in Maryland as a result of a new state law that regulates such online material.

A representative from Google said the company made its decision before the law — one of the first of its kind in the country — took effect July 1.

“Starting June 29th, we will stop accepting state and local election ads in Maryland, while we assess the new election ads disclosure law and ensure our systems are built to comply with its new requirements,” Riva Sciuto, a spokeswoman for Google, said in an email.

Companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter, as well as newspapers with an online footprint of at least 100,000 unique monthly viewers, are now required to maintain databases of all Maryland political ads on their platforms. The databases contain information similar to what is required from television stations for ad buys, including who paid for the ads and how much they spent.

The legislation prohibits the use of foreign money to buy political advertising and requires online platforms to keep copies of the ads, along with information about whom the ads target. The State Board of Elections can use the information if it deems an investigation is warranted.

Federal regulators have scrambled to bring more transparency to online political ads since Facebook, Google and Twitter admitted last year that Russian agents targeted millions of Americans on social media during the 2016 presidential election. Many of the Kremlin-backed posts, videos and tweets sought to spread disinformation, stoke social tensions around issues such as immigration, or depress voter turnout, particularly among African Americans.

Other states, including New York and Washington, also are considering bills that make more information about political ads available to voters.

But legislation to address the issue stalled in Congress amid partisan bickering over campaign finance and intense lobbying from the politically powerful tech industry.

“We knew if the federal government wasn’t acting, we needed to,” said Maryland state Sen. Craig J. Zucker (D-Montgomery), the lead bill sponsor in the Senate. “This is going to be pretty transformational when it comes to keeping online transparency around paid political ads that are purchased. And this will help us protect Maryland against foreign entities trying to interfere in our election process.”

The legislation is one of several bills that took effect this week. Among the others are the first major overhaul of the state’s anti-harassment policy in decades; as well as a bill that will allow the state to continue taxing inheritances of $4 million or more, even as the federal threshold for such taxes rises to $11 million.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) declined to sign the online political advertising bill, citing “serious constitutional concerns.”

“The legislation contains vague and overbroad language that could have unintended consequences of stifling the free speech of citizens who are mobilizing on social media platforms,” Hogan, whose 2014 campaign was boosted by a heavy presence on Facebook, wrote in a letter to the presiding officers of the General Assembly.

The letter said the bill had “laudable goals” that Hogan strongly supports.

The Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association, concerned about setting a precedent where the government is directing media outlets on what should be published, asked the governor to veto the bill.

Rebecca Snyder, executive director of the association, said she has compiled guidelines for members of the organization, including the Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post, on how to comply with the legislation.

In October, a trio of federal lawmakers introduced a bill called the Honest Ads Act that would require the tech giants to maintain public databases of all political ads that appear on their platforms, as well as who viewed them. Congress has not held a hearing on the proposal, and a trade association for major Internet companies has not offered its full support.

Nor has the Federal Election Commission written its own rules to govern online political ads.

“I appreciate that the states are stepping up to the plate, but in the end we need a national solution across major social media platforms,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), one of the sponsors of the legislation, said in a statement. “The American people deserve to know who is paying to influence them in a transparent and timely matter.”

Facebook, Google and Twitter have pledged to adopt their own transparency practices. Facebook and Twitter unveiled new online portals where users can explore the ads purchased by political campaigns, as well as demographic data on who viewed them.

Facebook’s transparency hub covers federal, state and local candidates, as well as ads that touch on hot-button political debates, such as gun control.

Twitter’s ads focus only on federal campaigns, but the social media giant has said it would expand its database to touch on “issue ads” as well.