Failed “Honest Ads Act” Trojan Horse Included in Senate Dems’ AI Bill

September 26, 2023 | Luke Wachob

At a September 27 hearing dedicated to the future of our elections, some Democratic Senators hope to revive failed legislation from the past. Under the guise of new concerns about artificial intelligence in campaign advertising, Senator Amy Klobuchar’s “Honest Ads Act” has new life in the Senate Rules and Administration Committee. It also has new marketing.

The misleadingly named “Honest Ads Act” was first introduced in 2017, supposedly as a measure to stop Russian Facebook ads. That was a hard sell to begin with. Senate Democrats had been grumbling for years about the growing use of internet ads by Americans and nonprofit causes. “Honest Ads” addressed their concerns in detail but offered nothing that would deter hostile foreign actors.

Instead, the legislation proposed making it much harder for law-abiding Americans to speak about policy issues on the internet by creating a stunningly broad new category of regulated speech called a “qualified internet or digital communication.” In practice, this meant that organizations engaging in nonpartisan education and other grassroots outreach on the internet would be subjected to a range of complicated and burdensome reporting requirements. So, too, would the websites and internet platforms that host their speech.

As a result, the 21st century’s town square would take another step towards centralization and government control. Groups lacking significant financial resources or expert legal counsel would be excluded from online advertising about policy issues and government officials. Inevitably, Americans working to effect social change would struggle under these regulations and self-censor, effectively stifling their voices. Many web platforms would likely ban content covered by the law rather than attempt to comply with its requirements.

Fortunately, “Honest Ads” died in the Senate in its original form and has continued to fail in subsequent Congresses. But the bill reappeared as part of the “For the People Act,” also known as H.R. 1, in 2019 and 2021. Here, “Honest Ads” was rebranded as an allegedly necessary change to campaign finance laws in a broader mess of new regulations for nonprofit causes that speak about public affairs.

Now, “Honest Ads” is back once again, as a core component of S. 1596 and its identical companion, H.R. 3044. This legislation, dubbed the “REAL Political Advertisements Act,” purportedly requires campaign ads to disclose the use of artificial intelligence to viewers. Yet it lifts numerous provisions directly from the “Honest Ads Act” that have nothing at all to do with AI.

The inclusion of these provisions raises concerns that S. 1596 is a trojan horse for regulating political speech on the internet. As PUFP explains in a new resource, these portions of S. 1596 present serious constitutional and practical problems that should cause Members of Congress and the Committee to reconsider. Any effort to require disclaimers for AI in political campaign ads should avoid infringing on the First Amendment rights of Americans and the nonprofits they support to speak about policy issues online.

You can watch the hearing, “AI and the Future of Our Elections,” in the Senate Rules and Administration Committee on September 27th at 3:30 PM ET.