The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why a crackdown on Facebook, Google and Twitter could come from the states before Congress

Some of the Facebook and Instagram ads linked to a Russian effort to disrupt the American political process and stir up tensions around divisive social issues. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick)

Alonzo Washington delivered a dire warning to his fellow delegates in Maryland’s legislature last month: Russia might try to influence their elections, too.

So the Democratic veteran set about doing something that’s eluded his federal counterparts in the nation’s capital: advancing legislation to regulate tech giants like Facebook, Google and Twitter.

At a time when the U.S. Congress seems paralyzed by partisanship — and either too reluctant or distracted to take on Silicon Valley’s most powerful players — Maryland is among a growing roster of states trying to remedy some of the most pressing ills of the digital age.

Along with Maryland, leaders from New York to Washington state have pitched new bills that would make more information about online political ads available to local voters. In California, meanwhile, state leaders are taking aim at the scourge of social-media bots, or networks of computer-directed accounts often used to amplify misinformation.

“We are literally seeing states become the laboratories of democracy that people have talked about because there’s tremendous public demand right now,” said Shum Preston, the national director of advocacy and communications for Common Sense Kids Action, an activist group that has helped advance bot legislation in California.

“The country is clamoring for these bills, they’re clamoring for these protections online,” he said, “and Washington is falling down on the job.”

Of course, local policymakers face the same challenges as their federal brethren: They must navigate their legislatures’ labyrinthine corridors of power, explaining complex tech issues to their political peers, who may not know the industry well.

If they succeed, however, supporters hope they might soon spur other states — and, eventually, the federal government — to take similar action.

Over the past year, the U.S. Congress has convened hearings and threatened Facebook, Google, Twitter and their Silicon Valley counterparts with new regulation. In response to Russia’s efforts to spread online propaganda during the 2016 election, for example, Democratic Sens. Mark R. Warner (Va.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) introduced a bill that would impose a host of new ad-transparency requirements on major web platforms.

But their Honest Ads Act hasn’t been formally debated almost five months since its introduction. Its passage in time for the 2018 midterm elections seems increasingly unlikely. Other federal efforts to rein in the tech industry similarly have faltered. In the meantime, Facebook, Google and Twitter each has announced plans to disclose more information about their advertisers to users in a bid to ward off federal regulation.

Outside the nation’s capital, however, the looming fear is that one state seeking to set new rules governing the tech industry might prompt others to follow suit. That could create a regulatory landscape where tech giants have to submit to a host of fresh, potentially conflicting laws governing content on their platforms.

“There certainly has been an uptick of activity in the states on internet-related issues,” said Robert Callahan, the vice president for state government affairs at the Internet Association, a D.C.-based lobbying group. “As always, we will be working closely with policymakers around the country to ensure they understand the real-world implications that any given policy proposal could have on this bright spot in our economy.”

One emerging battleground is Maryland, where legislators this year have proposed a new bill that would require tech companies to make copies of political ads about state candidates available for public inspection. The bill backed by Alonzo Washington, the delegate from Maryland, had a February hearing in the state House, and the Senate convened its own session Thursday.

“It wasn’t really not until things happened in 2016 that there was interest,” said Bradley Shear, a Maryland lawyer who specializes in social media and testified at the House hearing.

In New York on Wednesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo teamed up with lawmakers in the state Assembly to pass its own version of the federal Honest Ads Act. It still must survive a vote in the Republican-controlled state Senate.

“You have a total lack of regulation of the social media space,” the governor told reporters.

Even cities are taking on tech giants: Officials in Seattle are trying to tap decades-old campaign finance rules to force Facebook and Google to disclose more data about who pays for political ads in local elections. Google submitted a “binder full of information” in response to the city’s recent inquiries, but Facebook has produced only a “two-page spreadsheet,” said Wayne Barnett, the executive director of the Seattle’s elections commission. Facebook is now staring down a potential fine.

“I don’t think anybody had ever tested the law when it came to online social platforms until there was a local reporter here who attempted to get this information in December,” he said.

In some cases, the tech industry has mobilized to fight off any new ad regulation. This year, Facebook joined Google, Twitter and other tech giants that are part of the Internet Association to ward off a bill in Washington state that also might have subjected them to tougher transparency requirements. Facebook is also endeavoring to “weaken the bill” in Maryland, Shear said.

Asked about its lobbying, Will Castleberry, the vice president for state and local public policy at Facebook, stressed the social giant is ready to work with lawmakers on the issue.

“Facebook is firmly committed to transparency in political advertising as well as to protecting our platforms and the people who use them from bad actors trying to undermine our democracy,” he said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for Google did not respond to an email seeking comment. A spokeswoman for Twitter declined to comment.

Nevertheless, election watchdogs stress that they’re angling to advance additional transparency bills in other legislatures around the country.

“We’ve been talking to groups and individual policymakers in California about doing something similar,” said Ian Vandewalker, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. The organization testified in support of Maryland’s legislation.

For now, California has a different target in mind: bots.

Studies suggest that as many as 15 percent of Twitter users are automated accounts. And while Twitter and its peers argue that bots may be useful — helping to share critical information about inclement weather, for example — these remote-controlled networks often are deployed to amplify misinformation or overwhelm online bystanders with harassment.

In response, lawmakers in the Golden State’s legislature are pushing proposals that seek to regulate bots. One measure, from Democratic Sen. Bob Hertzberg, would require companies like Twitter to label every account that isn’t operated by a human. The proposal came about with the help of groups like Common Sense Kids Action.

“We know technologically when these accounts are open whether they’re real or fake,” said Hertzberg, who predicted a hearing as soon as this month.

Hertzberg is conversant in tech issues like cryptocurrencies, and he previously served as speaker of the state Assembly. He said he remains in contact with other state legislative leaders and had already spoken to them about his bill.

“I would suggest, because of the size of California and our brand,” the hope is to “find other states to help to do the same thing,” he said.