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Election officials move closer to placing new rules on Facebook and Google

A voter enters a booth at a polling place in New Hampshire on Nov. 8, 2016. (Elise Amendola/AP)

The Federal Election Commission moved a step closer to placing tighter regulations on Internet ads published on major Web platforms, marking a significant shift for an agency beset by partisan dysfunction and another sign that regulators are seeking to thwart foreign meddling in U.S. elections.

All five members of the commission voted Thursday to start a rulemaking process to require disclaimers for small, character-limited political ads that run online on places such as Facebook, Google and Twitter.

The commissioners described working together to prevent foreign operatives from influencing American voters as a crucial priority. “Foreign interference in U.S. elections is inimical to our nation’s interests and democratic values,” said the Republican commissioners in a motion to advance the rulemaking process. “The need to prevent such interference is an issue that transcends partisan politics, and on which all Americans can agree.”

Facebook, Google and Twitter have said in statements to the FEC before the meeting that they are open to stricter oversight over the rapidly expanding business of online political advertising. The tech companies have acknowledged that their ad platforms and networks helped facilitate foreign meddling. Disclosure requirements already exist for television, radio and digital ads. But the commission has not made explicit what is required of small online political ads, whose dimensions and display make it challenging to include a disclaimer. The rulemaking process would seek to clarify those obligations. Facebook, Google and Twitter declined to comment beyond the statements they submitted to the agency.

While the entire commission agreed that the process leading to new rules should begin, there was disagreement over when tech companies and experts should be invited to offer detailed input. Vice chair Caroline Hunter, a Republican, flashed frustration when asked by Democratic Commissioner Ellen Weintraub to explain why the commission shouldn't hold a hearing on the matter sooner rather than later. “I don't know how I can be any more clear,” Hunter said. She insisted that the commission should take time to digest the more than 100,000 comments it received from the public on Internet ad regulations, as well as material gleaned from three recent congressional hearings, where officials from Facebook, Google and Twitter testified.

Weintraub and independent Chair Steven Walther were in favor of hearing from Silicon Valley and other experts as soon as next month. “I think it'd be very helpful to people who, like me, do not really have any inherent knowledge regarding these IT issues” to receive input from experts, Walther said. Ultimately, the commission decided to draft its own proposal on ad disclosures and then invite the tech companies to respond to it.

Weintraub, who was congratulated by her Republican colleagues for championing the issue of ad disclosures, said she was surprised by the bipartisan support and described the vote as a “win.”

“I'm personally pretty jazzed about that,” she said, in a moment that highlighted how rarely the commission agrees, and how notable the potential new rules might be. The last time the commission initiated a major rulemaking process was in 2015. Although the three Republicans have a majority over the Democratic commissioner and the independent chair, four members must vote for any significant measure to pass.

The FEC is advancing its process as members of Congress are pushing their own legislation to bolster the transparency of online political ads. And while early efforts at the commission and on Capitol Hill are colored with bipartisanship, it's unclear whether they will gain further support. Officials are also racing against the calendar. The next national election is 355 days away, and online ads will arrive much sooner.