Government Censorship of Digital Content Could Be Coming to the U.S.

Early in 2019, the newly inaugurated 116th Congress introduced H.R. 1, a piece of legislation that has the potential to initiate a new era of official government censorship of online media. On the surface, the bill seems to contain many positive provisions such as facilitating voter access and participation, diminishing the influence of large campaign contributions from special interest groups in elections, and strengthening the ethics rules for public servants. However, buried deep within the 571 pages of the bill is a section called the Honest Ads Act. This section (Subtitle C) is almost identical to a standalone bill of the same name (S. 1989 in the Senate and H.R. 4077 in the House) introduced on Oct. 19, 2017, which never succeeded in passing. Given that the initial iteration of the Honest Ads Act was a bipartisan bill, coupled with the current political climate, there is a good chance that the new version embedded in H.R. 1 will pass both the House and Senate.

The Honest Ads Act is a threat to free speech and contravenes the First Amendment. In section 4208, subsection (a), it includes several amendments to Section 304 of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (52 U.S.C. 30104). One of the amendments would require online platforms and advertisers to disclose the complete records of all purchase requests of political ads exceeding $500 (the threshold for other media is $10,000). Another one of the amendments would qualify a political advertisement as “any advertisement (including search engine marketing, display advertisements, video advertisements, native advertisements, and sponsorships) that … communicates a message relating to any political matter of national importance.” For other media, the existing statute does not include this new definition, but instead refers to “electioneering communications,” which are defined by their reference to specific candidates. This would mean that digital marketers and content distribution platforms running ad campaigns—valued at $500 or more and related to any matter of national importance—would be subject to more stringent reporting requirements than their counterparts in any other media. This could apply to any of the following:

  • An advertising agency running an ad campaign for the NAACP to support voter registration
  • An advocacy group running an ad campaign to promote environmental conservation legislation
  • An online distribution platform that sells an ad campaign advocating for workplace diversity

Furthermore, in section 4208, subsection (c), the act provides a mandate to the chairman of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to report to Congress on “identifying ways to bring transparency and accountability to political advertisements distributed online for free.” Because of this ambiguous language—combined with the previous stipulations—this directive could be construed as pertaining to any content distributed online which “communicates a message relating to any political matter of national importance.” In other words, if passed, this act could require a federal government body—the FEC—to maintain a database of the specific sources and content of all political speech online.

The Honest Ads Act would impose onerous reporting requirements on digital advertisers and content distribution platforms running ads related to any matters of national importance. Moreover, it would authorize heavy-handed monitoring of online speech related to social, political, and economic issues, and thereby severely degrade the diversity of online discussion. Ultimately, this would prove detrimental to the functioning of democracy in the U.S. as the range of solutions to the problems we face would increasingly diminish. Instead of more censorship, our elected officials need to work on ways to promote media literacy and educate consumers about data privacy and usage, while safeguarding a free and open internet. 

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Any attempts to limit the public's access to information would undermine that purpose. Unfortunately, following several months of pervasive news stories regarding alleged Russian influence campaigns during the 2016 elections, major internet companies opted for censorship.