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What You Need To Know About The Honest Ads Act


Seems like nearly every day brings some new twist involving Russia and Facebook or Twitter or Google. On Capitol Hill today, three senators added this twist to the drama. They've introduced a bill they say will help protect the next U.S. election from Russian meddling by requiring tech giants to reveal who is buying political ads on their platforms.

Virginia's Mark Warner is 1 of those 3 senators. He's also the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and he joins us now from the Capitol. Welcome, Senator Warner.

MARK WARNER: Thank you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So you are calling this bill you've introduced today the Honest Ads Act. Tell us briefly what it would do.

WARNER: Well, over the last nine or 10 months, I've been saying to the social media companies, you've got to come clean with the level of Russian interference. And slowly we're getting this information that there were thousands of paid ads, that there were false accounts. We saw a report yesterday that there was a fake account on Twitter that was representing itself as the Tennessee Republican Party.

We're saying in this new era where over half of Americans get their ad from - their news from social media, if you advertise politically on social media, you need to disclose what group is advertising, and there ought to be a place where people can go look at the content, the same kind of requirements that already exist if people were to advertise on NPR or on television or on - in news print, equalizing the playing field. And then one other thing would do...

KELLY: Sure.

WARNER: We're simply asking the companies to make a reasonable attempt so that if that ad is being paid for by a foreign agent, that they will try to reveal that foreign agent since that's already against the law for a foreign government to interfere in American elections.

KELLY: And to be clear, would this apply to ads that mention a specific candidate, mention a specific party? Would it also apply to ads that tap into issues like gun control or race?

WARNER: There are already established rules that apply to TV and all existing media that obviously would apply to specific candidates. But there are issue ads that fall into a category of what's called national significance that would also have to have this disclosure and this ability that there could be a file where the public could go look at the content of those ads.

I've run for elected office four times in Virginia. There have been ads for me and against me. I think I ought to be able to go look at the content of those ads that are against me. And I think somebody ought to be able to go out look and see what kind of ads are running for me.

What we've tried to do is a very light touch. We don't want to slow down innovation. We don't want to slow down individuals' willingness to use the Internet or use these social media platforms. But in an era where $1.4 billion was spent on political advertising in the 2016 campaigns - and that number's only going to go up - there needs to be equality between traditional radio and broadcast and social media and Internet political advertising.

KELLY: Well, how do you rate your chances of getting this passed? You've got Senator McCain - John McCain, Republican senator from Arizona, as one of your co-sponsors. Do you think you will be able to get enough Republican votes onboard?

WARNER: I hope so. There's an awful lot of Republican senators who are anxious to hear what the social media companies - Facebook, Twitter, Google - they're going to come before the Senate Intelligence Committee on November 1. I think these companies have finally realized how serious this challenge is. They rely in many ways on the trust of the folks who use these platforms and read their news over the Internet. So I think they want to come forward. I think a lot of Republicans will support after that.

And I also hope candidly that these companies who say they acknowledge that they need to do a better job of sorting through some of this content, of making sure that there's not foreign-paid advertising coming into our American political system - I hope they end up supporting the legislation as well.

KELLY: You - in the few seconds we have left, you acknowledge that this bill would be a light touch, meaning it leaves a whole lot of the issues raised by Russian meddling unaddressed. Can you give us any kind of timeframe on where your committee is in investigating that, when we're going to hear your conclusions?

WARNER: My hope is we will get this done as quickly as we can as long as we can get to the bottom of the truth.

KELLY: End of the year?

WARNER: Whether that's done by the end of this year, beginning next quarter - I think it's going to be tough to see it done by the end of this year. But we...


WARNER: We want to get this done as quickly as possible, but we've got to get to the facts.

KELLY: Good to speak with you, Senator.

WARNER: Thank you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Virginia Democrat Mark Warner. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.