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House Panel Considers How To Regulate Online Political Ads


How ready is the United States for Russian interference in the next election if it happens? Americans in a few states vote next month. People in every state vote for Congress in just over a year. We spent the past year or so learning more about how Russians made their influence felt in 2016, including through carefully targeted Facebook ads.

Today a House subcommittee on information technology considers ways to regulate ads like those. Republican Will Hurd of Texas is chair of that subcommittee, and he's on the line. Congressman, welcome back to the program.

WILL HURD: Thanks for always having me on.

INSKEEP: President Trump said specifically the other day on Twitter that this is a small problem, just a tiny amount of money spent. Is he right?

HURD: Well, I don't think we can fully say how big of a problem this was. I think the fact that we had Russians trying to interfere in our elections is a big problem. How much - you know, what was the impact of their ad buy? You know, I don't have any perspective on that. But we do have to be prepared for the fact that the Russians and possibly other countries are going to try to get involved in our elections again. And that's one of the reasons that I'm holding a subcommittee hearing today to look at the regulations and laws that apply to political ads, disclosures and disclaimers in traditional media and new media as well.

INSKEEP: Disclosures - so you want it to be clear if a Facebook ad comes up in my Facebook feed - you want it to be clear to me who paid for it.

HURD: Yes. And there's already a number of laws on the books. There's a number of Supreme Court cases that regulate political speech, whether it's express advocacy like, vote for this guy or gal...


HURD: ...Or issue advocacy where it's like, call and tell your congressman to do X, right? And so these rules should be applied uniformly across all kinds of media. And I think because of the activities of this past election, there's a lot of misinformation out there. There's been a lot of conversations about what should or shouldn't be done. And that's why we're holding this hearing - to bring in experts that deal with this issue in real life to talk about what the reality is and where there may be some disconnect so that we can be prepared for the future.

INSKEEP: Disclosure sounds great. But as you know, sometimes with TV ads, you will hear it's paid for by Donald J. Trump for president or whatever. But on other occasions, it'll be paid for by some obscure group, paid for by Americans for America. Are you going to be able to put the responsibility on Facebook or any other company to know who's actually buying the ads and what they stand for?

HURD: Well, the responsibility ultimately is with the person placing the ad. So even if there was a TV ad that didn't say, paid for by so and so, that it's not up to the broadcaster to police that. Now, what happens is they do because they work with the people placing these ads. And so, you know, the - one of the ways that you can provide oversight of that is broadcasters and radios have a public file, you know? It's a file of all these kinds of political advertising, how much they were spending, you know, who are the executives of the committee that was placing the ad - things like that.

INSKEEP: Oh, so the people like us can go follow up if things are a little obscure.

HURD: Yeah, absolutely. And I think - and that is where the law is now. And I think something similar should be - you know, that should apply across multiple medium. And that is, again, why we're working to have this hearing today - to talk through these and have dissenting opinions in one place so that we can paint a picture of what the reality is right now. And are changes necessary before the next election?

INSKEEP: So when President Trump tweeted about this the other day, Congressman, on October 21 I believe, his tweet says, keep hearing about tiny amount of money spent on Facebook ads; what about the billions of dollars of fake news on CNN, ABC, NBC and CBS?

That was his tweet. So he brought up this topic that wasn't on my mind. It wasn't foremost in the news that particular day, but it was on his mind - and tried to change the subject to something else, which he's done a lot. Why do you think it is, Congressman, that the president of the United States can't seem to get the Russia investigation off of his mind?

HURD: Well, I think you've got to ask him. But the fact that the Russian investigation is still ongoing, I think that's going to continue to be on everyone's mind until there is a completion of that. And I've always said the investigation that is being done by Bob Mueller is one. You have the oversight investigations in both the House and Senate. Those need to be done - you know, are continually being done in a bipartisan, thorough, thorough manner so that we can follow any lead that, you know, that - where the investigation takes us. So this is something that I'm sure is going to be on the president's mind until it's completed.

INSKEEP: I'm also thinking about sanctions against Russia. As you know very well, Congress passed strengthened sanctions against Russia. The White House had a deadline at the beginning of October to take certain acts as a result of that legislation, and the White House missed the deadline. Do you have any indication that the White House is taking this threat seriously at all?

HURD: Well, I'm a supporter of additional sanctions on Russia not just for their activity in the election, but they've invaded countries like eastern Ukraine.


HURD: And they're trying to call it a separatist activity when its 920 Russian tanks are in the Ukraine. They're trying to influence elections in places like Transnistria, which is a small province of Moldova. So this is a big issue...

INSKEEP: But why isn't...

HURD: ...For Congress, and Congress will continue to provide oversight.

INSKEEP: But why isn't the president on top of this?

HURD: Again, that's something that I think you have to ask the president. But I would say that the administration - you know, General Mattis, General H.R. McMasters (ph) - they recognize the threat that Russia is to us and our allies, and we're going to continue to provide oversight of that.

INSKEEP: Congressman, always a pleasure talking with you. Thanks very much.

HURD: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's Will Hurd, Republican Congressman of Texas, who chairs a subcommittee hearing today on information technology looking at social media ads in the upcoming election and how to make sure that we know who pays for them.

(SOUNDBITE OF IHF'S "AWAKE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.