Facebook will disable “new” political ads the week before this year’s November mid-term election (see its post on this policy here), just as many broadcast stations will be struggling with commercial inventory issues, trying to get last minute political ads on the air without having to dump all of their regular commercial advertisers who will be just starting to ramp up their commercial campaigns for the holiday season. We’ve written previously about how the legal policies that govern Facebook and other online platforms are different than those that govern broadcast, local cable, and direct broadcast satellite (DBS) political ad sales. Many of the policies adopted by these online platforms could not be adopted by broadcasters, local cable and DBS companies. In light of Facebook’s recent announcement and the upcoming election, we thought that we would recap some of our previous reviews of this issue.
In June 2021, we wrote about Facebook’s plans to end its policy of not subjecting posts by elected officials to the same level of scrutiny by its Oversight Board that it applies to other platform users. Facebook’s announced policy has been that the newsworthiness of posts by politicians and elected officials was such that it outweighed Facebook’s uniform application of its Community Standards – although it did make exceptions for calls to violence and questions of election integrity, and where posts linked to other offending content. Just a year before, there were calls for Facebook to take more aggressive steps to police misinformation on its platforms. These calls grew out of the debate over the need to revise Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which insulates online platforms from liability for posts by unrelated parties on those platforms (see our article here on Section 230).
In past posts, including this one two years ago, we compared Facebook’s policy with the laws that apply to other communications platforms, including broadcasters and cable companies. Here is a lightly edited version of what we wrote in the past:
In January 2020, the New York Times ran an article seemingly critical of Facebook for not rejecting ads from political candidates that contained false statements of fact. We have already written that this policy of Facebook matches the policy that Congress has imposed on broadcast stations and local cable franchisees who sell time to political candidates – they cannot refuse an ad from a candidate’s authorized campaign committee based on its content – even if it is false or even defamatory (see our posts here and here for more on the FCC’s “no censorship” rule that applies to broadcasting and local cable systems). As this Times article again raises this issue, we thought that we should again provide a brief recap of the rules that apply to broadcast and local cable political ad sales, and contrast these rules to those that currently apply to online advertising.
As stated above, broadcast stations, local cable, and DBS systems cannot censor candidate ads – meaning that they cannot reject these ads based on their content. Commercial broadcast stations and DBS companies cannot even adopt a policy that says that they will not accept ads from federal candidates, as there is a right of “reasonable access” (see our article here, and as applied here to fringe candidates) that compels them to sell reasonable amounts of time to federal candidates who request it. Contrast this to, for instance, Twitter, which has in the past decided to ban all candidate advertising on its platform (see our article here), and the Facebook ban just announced prohibiting new political ads the week before November’s election. There is no right of reasonable access to broadcast stations for state and local candidates, though once a station decides to sell advertising time in a particular race, all other rules, including the “no censorship” rule, apply to these ads (see our article here). Local cable systems are not required to sell ads to any political candidates but, like broadcasters with respect to state and local candidates, once a local cable system sells advertising time to candidates in a particular race, all other FCC political rules apply. National cable networks (in contrast to the local systems themselves) have never been brought under the FCC’s political advertising rules for access, censorship or any other requirements – although from time to time there have been questions as to whether those rules should apply. So cable networks, at the present time, are more like online advertising, where the FCC rules generally do not apply.
Disclosure is another place where the government-imposed rules are different depending on the platform. Broadcasters, local cable systems, and DBS operators have extensive disclosure obligations, in online public files, requiring that they detail advertising purchases by candidates and other issue advertisers. We wrote (here and here) about policies adopted in the last few years about the new enhanced disclosure rules for federal issue advertising (including ads supporting or attacking federal political candidates purchased by groups other than the candidate’s own campaign committee). Cable networks and online platforms do not have federal disclosure obligations. Some have voluntarily adopted their own disclosure policies (see for instance Facebook’s qualification policy for political advertisers, here). In addition, some states have imposed obligations on these platforms (see, for instance, our article here), but as we wrote two years ago, at least one appellate court has determined, in connection with Maryland’s online political advertising disclosure obligations, that such rules are unconstitutional when imposed on online platforms rather than on advertisers.
Certainly, it can be argued that there are technical differences in the platforms that justify different regulation and different actions by the platforms themselves. Online platforms clearly have the potential to target advertising messages to a much more granular audience. The purpose of this article is not to argue one way or the other – just to point out that these differences exist. As we are already well into the political season with advertising running for the 2020 election, we are unlikely to see significant changes in these rules for this election – but watch for more discussions on these differences in the future in terms of how various platforms treat political advertising, and whether this differing treatment should continue.
Obviously, that discussion of the proper standards to apply to online platforms continues today (see, for instance, our articles here and here). We will be following those developments in future posts.