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US Senators Seek to Block Foreign Online Ads Targeting American Voters

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., left, and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., speak about online political ads and preventing foreign interference in U.S. elections, during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 19, 2017.

With U.S. midterm elections barely a year away, lawmakers on Thursday unveiled a bipartisan proposal to regulate online political advertising in the United States, an effort prompted by revelations that Russian elements spent large sums on internet ads targeting Americans ahead of the 2016 U.S. election.

"Our entire democracy was founded on the simple idea that the people in our country should be self-governing," said Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, the ranking Democrat on the Rules Committee, which has jurisdiction over federal elections, at a news conference.

"Our democracy is at risk," Klobuchar added. "We recently learned that $100,000 was spent in [Russian] rubles on Facebook political ads during the 2016 election. We know that [Russian-funded] ads were purchased in other venues, as well."

To prevent a repeat, Klobuchar, along with Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, unveiled the Honest Ads Act, which would require Facebook, Twitter, Google and other technology giants to post information about the source of political ads, just as U.S. television and radio broadcasters are required to do.

The bill has the backing of Republican John McCain of Arizona, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"Unfortunately, U.S. laws regulating transparency in political campaigns have not kept pace with rapid advances in technology, allowing our adversaries to take advantage of these loopholes to influence millions of American voters with impunity," McCain said in a statement.

The bill also would require tech companies to make "reasonable efforts" to ensure that foreign entities are not using social media platforms for political purposes. Earlier this year, Facebook shut down a multitude of suspicious accounts that targeted elections in France.

Since its creation, the internet has been more free-wheeling and less regulated than other media forms, a feature that technology firms and others have argued is critical to its success.

Warner, a former cellphone executive, insisted he has no desire to alter cyberspace's fundamental nature.

"We don't want to slow down innovation in the internet," the Virginia senator said. "But I think Americans deserve to know if the ads they are seeing are generated by Americans or generated by foreign interests."

Executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter will have a chance to weigh in on the legislation when they testify in an open hearing the Senate Intelligence Committee has scheduled for next month.