FEC Permits Short Google Ads Without Disclaimers

Posted October 7, 2010 at 5:19pm

Updated: 7:15 p.m.

After 63 days, two lengthy meetings and at least five draft opinions, the Federal Election Commission could only agree to disagree Thursday on why Google should be exempt from some political ad disclaimers.

On Aug. 5, Google asked the agency whether lengthy legal disclaimers are necessary for extremely short campaign ads that contain a maximum of 95 characters. Commissioners verbally agreed that the disclaimer requirements did not apply to Google’s small items, but they could not agree on the exact wording that explained why.

“The commission could not reach a response to the questions presented by the required four votes,” said Republican Chairman Matthew Petersen, following an hourlong recess where commissioners huddled in two groups going over language. “The commission concludes that under the conditions described in the request, the conduct is not in violation of the act or commission regulations.”

Normally, if a candidate pays for the communication, the ad has to be accompanied by a disclaimer that states that the communication “has been paid for by the authorized political committee.” But Google was asking whether including the URL, which would contain text like www.MrSmithforWashington.com, may suffice.

In addition to Google, Facebook wrote a separate letter to the commission about the request, reasoning that its ads are short enough to be exempt under the law. “Commission regulations exempt from disclaimer requirements ‘[b]umper stickers, pins, buttons, pens, and similar small items upon which the disclaimer cannot be conveniently printed,'” Facebook’s lawyers wrote.

The final approved opinion, which did not find anything illegal about Google’s advertising plan, was passed by a 4-2 vote.

Republican Commissioners Donald McGahn and Caroline Hunter voted against the opinion. Hunter said the document did not go far enough to clarify the basis for the commission’s decision.