Facebook, Google won't commit to stop taking foreign cash for U.S. political ads

Garance Franke-Ruta
Senior Politics Editor

WASHINGTON — Facebook and Google declined under repeated congressional questioning Tuesday to commit to stop taking Russian rubles and other foreign currencies as payment for American political advertisements, despite federal election law prohibiting payments from foreign nationals.

Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, a Democrat, hammered the companies on the question of accepting American political ads paid for with foreign currencies during a Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee hearing on Russian disinformation campaigns and the 2016 election. It was the first of three congressional hearings to be held over two days in which representatives from Google, Facebook and Twitter will appear for questioning.

“How did Facebook, which prides itself on being able to process billions of data points and instantly transform them into personal connections for its users, somehow not make the connection that electoral ads paid for in rubles were coming from Russia?” asked Franken. “Those are two data points — American political ads and Russian money, rubles. How could you not connect those two dots?”

“In hindsight, we should have had a broader lens. There were signals we missed,” said Colin Stretch, the general counsel for Facebook.

“People are buying ads on your platform with rubles,” said Franken. “They’re political ads. You put billions of data points together all the time; that’s what I hear these platforms do. They’re the most sophisticated things invented by man, ever. Google has all knowledge that man has ever developed. You can’t put together rubles with a political ad and go, like, ‘Hmmm, those two data points spell out something bad.’”

“It’s a signal we should have been alert to, and in hindsight, it’s one we missed,” replied Stretch.

“Okay, okay, yeah,” said Franken. “Will Facebook commit to not accepting political ads paid for by foreign money in the future?”

“Senator, our goal is to require all political advertisers, regardless of currency, to provide documentation and information that they’re authorized to advertise,” Stretch said, raising questions about the utility of what he called “the currency signal.”

“Our goal is to make sure we’re addressing all forms of abuse,” said Stretch.

“My goal is for you to think through this stuff a little bit better,” snapped Franken.

A poster depicting an example of a misleading Internet posting is visible as Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., left, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., listen to testimony. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

In his prepared testimony, Stretch noted that of the fake accounts associated with the Internet Research Agency — which “spent approximately $100,000 on more than 3,000 Facebook and Instagram ads between June 2015 and August 2017″ — “many of the ads were paid for in Russian currency, though currency alone is a weak signal for suspicious activity.”

Franken pressed again on this point later, turning his attention to Twitter and Google. He asked: Would they commit to stop running electoral ads on American political campaigns that are paid for by foreign actors?

“I don’t believe we do,” said Sean Edgett, acting general counsel of Twitter. “I don’t believe we take rubles.” He replied “yes,” to the yes or no version of Franken’s question.

Google was, like Facebook, more circumspect. “I would want to check to make sure it’s a good signal. If it’s a good signal, yes. If it’s not a good signal, then it’s not a good approach,” said Richard Salgado, Google law enforcement and security director.

“You know foreign companies actually can’t legally do that,” said Franken.

“Right. Foreign companies can’t, that’s right. So the trick is to make sure it is a signal that gives us the right hit. It’s a very good signal and so it may be the right one to use,” Salgado said.

“Foreigners can’t use money in our campaigns — you know that, right? It’s illegal,” asked Franken. “So you want to know if it would be a good signal to do something illegal or not?”

“It’s a very good signal,” agreed Salgado.

Overall, the companies emphasized that while they have hundreds or thousands of people on staff to monitor content for terrorist threats and other violations, the first line of defense at all the companies is technology. They are good at seeing “signals,” such as the creation of hundreds of new accounts in a short period of time, but as international companies that accept advertising paid for in an array of denominations, the trick going forward will be to identify U.S.-targeted political and issue-based ads paid for with all foreign currencies.

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