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Tech companies and U.S. lawmakers are clashing over the need for new regulations targeting political ads

A group representing Facebook, Google and Twitter tries to ward off regulation as the Russia probe intensifies.

Rep. Will Hurd, a Republican from Texas, speaks during a news conference.
Rep. Will Hurd
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

To Republican Rep. Will Hurd, it’s an urgent problem that Russian agents purchased “political advertising on major American social media platforms” ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. To his Democratic colleague, Rep. Robin Kelly, federal laws must be updated in response.

But as those two lawmakers and their peers began weighing on Tuesday exactly what to do, the likes of Facebook, Google and other tech companies and ad networks came with a message of their own: We can handle much of the problem ourselves.

At any other time, it would have been a routine exchange between skeptical members of Congress and the always slippery, always hard-to-regulate tech behemoths that are supposed to be under Washington, D.C.’s watch. But the discussion before a little-known House subcommittee focused on “information technology” proved much more illustrative — as a microcosm of the coming collision between tech and the U.S. government over the need to regulate political ads.

At the moment, Congress has trained its scrutiny on Facebook, Google and Twitter, as lawmakers probe the extent to which Kremlin-aligned agents sought to spread disinformation through those platforms ahead of the 2016 presidential election. All three companies are set to address questions about what they found — and what they plan to do — at two back-to-back hearings on Nov. 1 with the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.

Already fearing new federal regulations, however, these companies have raced to introduce changes to the way they accept and display political ads. Earlier this fall, for example, Facebook announced new hires and investments to monitor election-related advertisements. And as the House convened its hearing on Tuesday, Twitter announced its own new set of internal checks.

Mounting the industry’s defense Tuesday on Capitol Hill was the Interactive Advertising Bureau, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association that represents Facebook, Google, Twitter and other major online ad networks. The lobbying group’s leader, Randall Rothenberg, sought to strike a precarious balance — stressing that his organization, known as IAB, has “always stood for greater transparency and disclosure” but is best equipped to handle any trouble on its own.

In opening testimony, Rothenberg said the industry “itself can go even further to implement supply chain protections” when it comes to spotting sketchy political ads. In closing, he argued that “self regulation ... can actually go further than this Congress can go in enforcing the rules.”

Some lawmakers didn’t seem convinced.

“If we’re going to be ready ... we’ve got to anticipate what comes next,” noted Rep. John Sarbanes, a Democrat who has long sought to tighten federal campaign finance laws. Earlier this year, he urged the Federal Elections Commission to take a closer look at online ads in particular.

“It’s important, if we’re going to keep foreign money out of our politics,” added Rep. Derek Kilmer, another Democratic lawmaker, as he began his own line of questioning.

Kilmer is a backer of the so-called Honest Ads Act, a new bill chiefly authored by Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Mark Warner with the aid of GOP Sen. John McCain. It would require large tech platforms to make copies of all political ads available to the public, along with data about the audiences those ads targeted.

“Requiring disclosure when someone purchases a radio or TV ad does not prohibit or inhibit free speech, nor does holding those purchases in a public file,” Kilmer said.

From a table of witnesses, Kilmer could count on some support from David Chavern. As leader of the News Media Alliance — a collection of 2,000 organizations, including Google-opposing News Corp — Chavern said it was “time that Google and Facebook and other online platforms do their part.” Chavern admitted, however, that newspapers don’t have to maintain public files of all the ads they’ve run.

But Rothenberg, the IAB leader, said the Honest Ads Act is potentially unworkable for the fast-moving tech industry.

“It’s hard to take something based on the stewardship of the airwaves and port it over to something as open as the internet,” Rothenberg said. He argued that the burden should fall on the campaigns themselves to “create the public file, and that would be available across all media.”

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