Skip to main content

Online political ads are more secretive than TV ads, but that could change soon

Online political ads are more secretive than TV ads, but that could change soon


Democrats on the US Federal Election Commission (FEC) want to investigate online ads like they do with TV ads

Share this story

As more and more of our video viewing habits shift online, here's a question worth asking: should online political video ads be treated the same way as ads on TV? Because they're not right now. That's because the US Federal Election Commission (FEC), the agency in charge of regulating campaign financing in this country, decided back in 2006 to exempt people who post politically opinionated material online from having to file reports on how much they spent to create their content and from having to post detailed disclaimers saying who was paying for it. Meanwhile, the people and groups who make political ads for TV that cost over $10,000 must file expenditure reports and run audio disclaimers over their ads. This is how the so-called "internet exemption" was born, and nonprofit groups have been taking advantage of it ever since to post political ads online without disclosing who exactly paid for them, let alone how much they cost.

Now some of the FEC's leaders are saying that the internet exemption was a mistake, specifically when it comes to online video ads: last week, the three Democratic commissioners in charge of the agency voted in favor of investigating a nonprofit organization called the Checks and Balances for Economic Growth, The Hill reports. Checks and Balances For Economic Growth produced two video ads that were posted on YouTube during the 2012 campaign — ads that railed against President Obama and Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, respectively (see them below). The group was accused of airing the ads on broadcast TV in Ohio, spending over $800,000 on them, and not including full audio disclaimers. "As nearly everyone now knows, you can watch TV on the Internet," wrote Democratic commissioner Ann Ravel in a statement. "So why hasn't the [Federal Election] Commission re-evaluated its approach to keep up with the changing times?"

However, Checks and Balances for Economic Growth responded saying that it spent the money in question on a third ad on TV and that the two ads posted to YouTube were never aired on TV (despite having "TV ad" in their names on YouTube). The three Republican commissioners on the FEC voted in favor of the group, and the tie means that the rules will remain the same for the time being. But as The Hill notes, Ravel vowed to bring up the matter again next year, and the debate is likely to only heat up ahead of the 2016 election. If even one of Republican commissioner decides to back the Democrats, the rules for political ads online could soon be a lot stricter.