Digital Ad Disclosure

Web browser windows with different social media ads

Transparency is a fundamental feature of a healthy democracy: voters have a right to know who is trying to influence their vote.

Disclosure requirements have long been considered central to the free and transparent functioning of our democracy.  

But our democracy is modernizing, and our disclosure laws are not keeping up. Americans get most of their news and information online, and political groups have taken note of that: from the 2014 election cycle to 2018, digital political spending increased by an astonishing 2,400%. Meanwhile, federal law governing transparency requirements for political ads hasn’t been updated since 2002.  

Our transparency laws are out of date and have become a critical vulnerability in our electoral system. This became painfully clear in 2016, when Russian operatives spread divisive political messages through online platforms. After a thorough investigation, the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee made an explicit recommendation: that Congress “examine legislative approaches to ensuring Americans know the source of online political advertisements.” 

We need robust digital ad disclosure to modernize the laws that protect the integrity and transparency of our democracy.  

In the face of Congressional inaction on this critical issue, states have picked up the slack, and are passing effective digital ad disclosure policies.   

Strong policy regarding digital ad disclosure will do four key things: (1) update our current laws so that they explicitly apply to digital ads; (2) require digital ads to be made available for public view through mandatory public archives; (3) ensure that digital ads clearly identify their sponsors; and (4) expand what counts as a foreign national, to prevent foreigners from making expenditures to influence state or local ballot questions. 


By and large state and federal laws have not been updated for the digital age. At the federal level, for example, “electioneering communications” (ads run in the days preceding an election) run on broadcast and radio are required to file a report with the FEC and carry an on-ad disclaimer. However, these requirements do not apply to ads run on digital platforms – even if they’re the exact same as the ones run on television.  

This loophole allows for dark money or, in the case of 2016, foreign interests to influence our politics: many of Russia’s ads that Mueller’s report highlighted “overtly opposed” a candidate, but may have not expressly advocated for the defeat of that candidate. Therefore, spending went by undetected. We need to extend the definition of electioneering communications to online ads, so that we can protect our democracy on all media. 

Success stories: Vermont, Washington and Wyoming 

These three states have extended their reporting and disclaimer requirements to online political ads.  

For more than 40 years, television stations have been required to maintain a record of who is purchasing broadcast political ads – but there is no such equivalent requirement for digital political ads. The need for digital political ad databases is even more acute: ads placed online are unique in that they are often only viewable by a targeted audience, as opposed to TV ads, which are widely distributed and intended for the general public. By doing this, special interest groups create “dark ads,” advertisements that can go entirely undetected because of the way that they’re targeted.  

Both candidates and constituents need to know the debate going on in an election so they can either respond to citizen concerns or make informed choices. But dark ads permit some constituents to have an entirely different conversation in isolation from the general public. Candidates need to know what is being said about them in order to respond, and allow for an informed election. Having public archives are critical in ensuring ads seen only be a limited audience are preserved and available for law enforcement agencies and the public at large to review.  

Success story: New York 

In 2018, New York passed a digital ad disclosure law that updated their existing policies on online political advertisements. One of these measures required the creation of digital archives of information about online ads relating to candidates and ballot initiatives. The New York State Board of Elections is responsible for maintaining the public archive of the ads: ad purchasers must file copies of their digital political ads with them. The archive that the State Board provides has public online access to copies of digital ads. New York’s rules apply only to online platforms that average 70 million or more monthly U.S. visitors.  

It should be easy for Americans to know who is paying for the political messaging. Nonetheless, digital ads rarely have the same kind of “this-message-approved-by” language used in televised campaign ads.  

Effective digital ad disclosure policy should address that by clearly indicating online political ads are subject to the same disclosure requirements as offline communications. Different states have enacted various laws implementing this concept, some requiring it directly on the ad itself, some permitting the substitution of a hyperlink to another website with the required information when the format of the ad doesn’t allow for on-ad disclaimers. Any of these policies, however, are a step in the right direction towards better transparency.  

Success story: California 

California’s law requires that ads clearly provide the direct sponsor of the advertisement, as well as the top three donors that contribute to that sponsor.  

Elections in the United States should be protected against foreign interests. In 2016, however, it became clear that digital platforms were the easiest way for foreign nationals to intervene. Effective online ad disclosure policy should address this by strengthening policy against foreign interference.  

In doing this, we should expand what counts as a foreign national to include agents of foreign principals or foreign-influenced corporations. We also need to tighten the ban on foreign participation in American elections. Specifically, that includes prohibiting foreigners from making expenditures to influence state and local ballot questions.  

Meaningful reform also involves requiring online platforms do their best to prevent foreign interests from placing ads. Currently, U.S. persons are prohibited from providing “substantial assistance” to a foreign national looking to spend in U.S. elections – but this is a more reactive provision, triggered once foreign participation is already suspected. We need proactive policy: digital ad disclosure laws should require that online platforms take reasonable and necessary steps to avoid selling political ads to foreign nationals. We need to protect future elections from foreign interference.


If you have questions about this policy proposal, we'd love to hear from you! Just e-mail us. 

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