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New federal rules on Facebook and Google ads may not be in place for 2018 midterms

House Intelligence Committee members question technology company executives about Russian ads during a November hearing. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Proposed Federal Election Commission rules aimed at preventing foreign influence on U.S. elections through better disclosure of online political ad sponsors may not take effect before the 2018 midterms, the panel’s Republican chairwoman said Thursday.

“The commission has been reluctant to change the rules of the game in the middle of the election season, so that would be something we would want to seriously consider,” Chairwoman Caroline Hunter told reporters.

A delay by the FEC would probably leave the task of providing more transparency about who is seeking to shape public opinion online in the hands of tech companies.

Facebook, Google and Twitter have all promised clearer labeling of political ads that run on their sites after revelations that they hosted content from Russian operatives aimed at stoking social and political unrest in the 2016 presidential race.

However, the industry has indicated limited support for more regulation by the FEC, urging the commission to adopt rules that apply to all digital platforms.

Since November, the commission has been negotiating new disclosure requirements for small, character-limited online political ads as a way to thwart foreign influence on U.S. elections. The rules would apply only to ads paid for by a political committee or candidate or paid “express advocacy” ads that call directly for the election or defeat of a federal candidate.

The Facebook ads Russians targeted at different groups

Republican commissioners have called the rulemaking a crucial priority that “transcends partisan politics.”

But the 2018 primaries kicked off this week without an FEC proposal for the public to review.

On Thursday, the commission delayed a scheduled vote to advance the new rules amid ongoing negotiations over dueling Democratic and Republican proposals. Commissioners plan to reconvene Wednesday to unveil their proposal and start a public comment and hearing process.

That process is “going to take a little bit of time,” Hunter said.

Vice Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub, a Democratic appointee, said the new rules need to be put in place as soon as possible.

“Are people really going to say, ‘Oh, it’s too late in the game to run a disclaimer now’?” she said. “Really? Really? I don’t really buy that.”

At Thursday’s public meeting, commissioners emphasized that their negotiations have been collegial. They said they agree on the substantive details but are working to simplify technical jargon to make it easier for the public to read.

After Russian meddling, Google and Facebook shift their stance on a crucial issue for voters

The six-member commission, which has two vacancies, frequently deadlocks along partisan lines on regulatory matters.

“I would like to do more, but we’re not going to have four votes to do anything more than this very narrow rulemaking,” Weintraub said. “If we can make progress on the very narrow front, that’s better than not making progress at all.”

Meanwhile, Democratic Sens. Mark R. Warner (Va.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) are pushing legislation that would require tech companies to preserve copies of all politically themed ads that appear on their platforms. The proposed Honest Ads Act would go further than the FEC rules by imposing a host of new ad-transparency requirements on major web platforms. But it has yet to have a hearing.

“We need to get more public focus. We need to start pushing Republicans,” Klobuchar said in a recent interview. “The FEC may do it, but it seems they may only do it for candidate ads. But it’s a small percent of it.”