On May 20th, Rep. Eric Swalwell (CA-15), a member of the Committee on the Judiciary and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, introduced the Corporate Duty to Report Act of 2019, which would require companies to disclose to the government when a foreign person, country, or organization attempts to subvert our election with political ads. The act is intended to deter foreign agents from buying U.S. political ads.
“Our very democracy was attacked by Russia in 2016,” said Swalwell. “Special Counsel Mueller in his report called their assault ‘sweeping and systemic.’ As his report reminds us, one of its methods were paid ads on social media platforms. Companies should now be on notice that this can happen. The bill I’m introducing today will put teeth into what is their civic duty to disclose to authorities when it does. With President Trump unwilling to discuss improving election security, it’s all the more important that Congress take action.”
Reports have detailed the Russian government’s use of paid political advertisements on social media platforms in its attack, and this tactic is described in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report as well. For example, accounts linked to the Russian government’s Internet Research Agency bought about 3,500 advertisements on political or public policy topics – paid for in rubles – across Facebook and Instagram between June 2015 and August 2017. These ads alone were seen by more than 10 million people.
These actions were arguably unlawful. Current law makes it illegal for foreign countries and non-U.S. citizens to use resources to affect the outcome of a U.S. election. But, current law does not provide an easy mechanism for the U.S. to detect this attempted influence.
The Corporate Duty to Report Act of 2019 would address this problem by imposing two new duties on corporations. First, a corporation would face criminal fines of up to $1 million per incident if it failed to report to the FBI instances in which it received funds for a political message that it knew was either an independent expenditure or electioneering communication (i.e., ads that mention a particular candidate) where the provider of the funds was a foreign national (includes persons, countries, and organizations). Second, a corporation would face civil fines of up to $500,000 per incident if it failed to ask, in cases in which it received funds intended for a political message, whether the funds amounted to an independent expenditure or electioneering communication and, if so, if the provider of the funds was a foreign national.
Corporations would have a defense to a criminal violation if they relied in good faith on attestations from the provider of the funds that they were not a foreign national or the funds were not for a covered political message.
“Had we known about the Russian attack sooner, we might have been able to stop it,” said Swalwell. “The Corporate Duty to Report Act will push corporations to ask who is funding political ads and then to report to law enforcement if they learn the source is a foreign national. That could go a long way toward thwarting future election interference attempts. We can no longer let our own social media infrastructure be used against us.”
The bill is part of Swalwell’s efforts to ensure that Russia’s 2016 election interventions do not repeat again. It follows on another bill Swalwell introduced in April, H.R. 2424, the Duty to Report Act, which would require the reporting to the government of offers by foreign persons and entities to help campaigns in U.S. elections.