California Task force recommends public archive for digital campaign ads


The San Diego Union-Tribune/Jeff McDonald

A task force convened by the state agency in charge of enforcing the California Political Reform Act is recommending the creation of a digital archive to track online advertisements promoting candidates for state office.

In a report released this week by the Fair Political Practices Commission, task force members say a public database of digital ads would help voters, researchers, journalists and others keep better track of campaign spending by state office seekers.

“California voters should be able to easily find out who is responsible for each ad they receive and a state-run ad archive would provide this,” said Richard C. Miadich, the commission chairman.

“As one of the national leaders in government ethics, with this work the FPPC is leading the way in setting standards, regulations and best practices in this fast-changing digital political media landscape,” Miadich added.

The online archive would be the first of its kind among the 50 states, although similar programs already exist in cities like New York and Los Angeles, the task force report noted.

The Digital Transparency Task Force was developed in 2019 to examine the impact of digital advertising put forward by candidates for state office. The 8-member commission included Miadich as well as legal scholars, political experts and voter advocates.

The group convened 10 times between April 2020 and July 2021 before releasing its 122-page report analyzing how new technology is impacting the way candidates market their ideas and policies to California voters.

“It is not an understatement to say technology is changing at breakneck speed,” the report noted. “And this ever-advancing technology is being utilized at an increasing rate by those targeting the public.”

The commission quoted a December 2020 Forbes magazine article that said digital political advertising accounted for 2 to 3 percent of overall campaign ad spending in the 2015-16 election cycle but 18 percent by the 2019-20 campaign cycle, or about $1.6 billion in digital advertising nationwide.

The task force report included three main recommendations for California.

First, the state should create and maintain a public database of all digital ads from state office seekers.

“Besides the aspect of more uniform transparency, the (task force) also determined a state-run archive will benefit campaign finance enforcement, as the information will be available to journalists, watchdog groups and other members of the public,” the report said.

Another recommendation involves the database itself.

The task force said officials should make it clear who is responsible for cultivating the archives and make sure it is designed in a way that everyday people are able to find the uploaded materials.

“The emphasis of the ad archive is for it to be easily navigable by voters, allowing them to search for information most relevant to them but also helpful to researchers and others who want to dig deeper into the data,” the report said.

The third significant recommendation calls on lawmakers to commission a study to examine the types of disclosures to be required in online campaign advertising and to conduct broad community outreach to learn what voters want from the project.

The analysis was forwarded to the Governor’s Office and to members of the state Senate and Assembly for potential adoption. It was not immediately clear how much the project would cost or where the money to develop and maintain the archive would come from.