Yesterday, the House Administration Committee held a markup of H.R. 4617, the “SHIELD Act”, which serves in part as the House counterpart to the Senate’s “Honest Ads Act”. While the House Administration Committee has made election security reforms one of their top priorities this Congress, the majority continues to introduce slipshod legislation that would undoubtedly result in the displacement of policy goals, and have a chilling effect on the free speech of Americans.
Ranking Member Rodney Davis implored that the Minority on the committee was “not against additional disclosure and disclaimer laws…[but] in its current form, this bill would regulate all political advertisement of all Americans, for $100,000 of Russian ads out of $1.4 billion dollars purchased in the 2016 elections.”
Davis made light of this by offering multiple amendments to all sections of Subtitle B, which incorporates sections of the “Honest Ads Act”. All of his amendments, except one dealing with labor unions, were struck down during the markup. Notably, his third amendment offered produced a number of thought provoking realities that this bill would affect. This amendment sought to strike section 115 of the legislation, which notably contains:
“For text or graphic communications, letters must appear at least as large as the majority of the text in the communication, contained in a printed box, and printed with a reasonable degree of color contrast between the background and the printed statement. Audio statements must be clearly audible and intelligible at the beginning or end of a communication and last at least 3 seconds. Video with audio must include the statement at the beginning or end of the communication, and be both in a written format that appears for 4 seconds and with audio that is clearly audible and intelligible for at least 3 seconds. All other types of communications must be at least as clear and conspicuous as what is otherwise required for text, video, and audio.”
Davis stated that this would have a chilling effect on the American public, rather than provide a remedy to a problem with online platforms accepting foreign money for ads. “A majority of propaganda came from free portions of online platforms…and why did they take a check from a foreign country and put those ads up? What are they doing to ensure that countries like Russia can’t use free platforms to spread bad information?”
On section 115, he noted that “this amendment would correct a problem in this bill that applies television disclaimer rules to online advertising…..there’s a big difference…” As the rules for online advertising would include up to 4 seconds of disclaimers, one must question how this would apply to ads found on websites such as Youtube, which often can be as short as 5-10 seconds, which would produce a disclaimer potentially longer than the ad itself.
Additionally, the text of section 116 would significantly stifle free speech by adding a $500 disclosure threshold for any individual placing political advertisements on an internet platform. This measure should induce pause to any informed observer, as it would essentially place disclosure requirements for any advertiser, targeting any audience, on any issue. Davis’s amendment seeking to strike or clarify this section was struck down.
Davis’ tenth and final amendment highlighted the partisan nature of these proceedings. It would seek to ban foreign nationals from election administration. Simply put, Davis demonstrated that there is currently no law banning Russian nationals from being poll-watchers, election IT security specialists, or holding other similar positions in U.S. elections. Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren stated that this amendment was beyond the scope of the bill, and ruled the amendment out of order. “It’s amendments like this that must gain as much bipartisan support as possible. You can’t get much more relevant or germane…than this amendment”, Davis stated.