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FEC considers expanding political ad disclaimers to mobile apps

New FEC rules could require political ads on apps such as Snapchat to carry disclaimers. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

Federal officials on Wednesday unveiled a proposal that could expand political disclaimer rules beyond websites such as Google to mobile applications such as Snapchat, but could give leeway about how much information would have to be disclosed based on the size of the ad.

The Federal Election Commission voted to seek public comment on the proposed new rules, which aims to update federal regulations to adapt to new technology.

The proposal would apply narrowly to a small category of political commercials and likely would leave largely untouched the types of ads that were linked to Russian operatives in the 2016 campaign. The new requirement may not be in place to affect the 2018 midterm elections, which are now underway.

Under current FEC rules, all political committees that pay to run ads on a website must report their spending in public filings and include disclaimers on the ads themselves that state the ads’ sponsors — just as they do for television ads.

However, as social media has played a growing role in campaigns, the commission has not drawn clear lines on what is required of small political ads online. As recently as 2011, Facebook argued to the FEC that such ads should not require the usual disclaimer that runs with political messages because it would be inconvenient and impractical.

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The FEC is now seeking public input on two proposals that would require more disclosure.

Among the ideas in the draft rules: allowing small ads that run on sites such as Google or Facebook to include a small icon or truncated text that would provide more information when a user hovers over the ad or when the user clicks to a separate page listing the sponsor’s information.

The proposal also asks whether the FEC’s definition for “public communication” online should continue to apply only to websites. The rule proposes to expand the definition to “internet-enabled device or application,” such as app-based social networks like Snapchat and streaming applications like Netflix and Hulu. Political advertisers might already be running some type of disclosure on those apps out of an abundance of caution, but there is no FEC rule that currently requires them to do so.

A public hearing on the FEC proposal is tentatively set for June 27.

With the narrow scope of the FEC rule and a broader-reaching regulatory proposal in Congress in limbo, the task of providing more transparency about who is seeking to shape public opinion through online ads and how to prevent foreign influence through social media has fallen to the tech companies for now.

Twitter and Snap declined to comment. Facebook, Google and the Internet Association, which lobbies on behalf of the internet industry, did not respond to a request for comment.