RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Facebook, Twitter and Google are on Capitol Hill this week facing tough questions about how to avoid a repeat of Russia's interference in U.S. elections. One of the people who has testified already is a man named Randall Rothenberg. He heads the Interactive Advertising Bureau. It's a trade group that represents Facebook, Twitter, Google, even NPR. He says this is a key moment for social media companies, which until now have mostly avoided government oversight.
RANDALL ROTHENBERG: We're reaching an inflection point in the history of the internet, and there's just simply a growing recognition, finally, that it's a complex, complicated, global plug-and-play supply chain that allows lots and lots of different kinds of players to participate, both the good ones that create value and unfortunately, on occasion, bad ones who destroy value.
MARTIN: You yourself, though, have pointed out that Russian bots have been around for a long time. So if this was a known problem, how was it let to evolve into what we saw transpire in the 2016 election?
ROTHENBERG: We've known in the internet industry that bots are a problem. I don't think anybody really thought that there would be fraudulent bot content-driving. What the industry was focused on was bot fraud that aimed at stealing money out of people's pockets.
MARTIN: So the big question now is, what is the solution?
ROTHENBERG: So number one has to be - I believe what's happening now - is simply a recognition that this is serious business, that people can get hurt from bad communications in the same way they can get hurt from bad grains in food or bad parts in cars.
MARTIN: So that means it needs to be regulated?
ROTHENBERG: I'd say yes, but - 'cause that's a very simple answer. Government could pass regulations, but then you have to implement the regulations. In order to implement the regulations, you have to write rules for the regulations. Then you have to fund mechanisms that actually go in and check whether the regulations are being followed.
MARTIN: Sounds like you think that's too onerous.
ROTHENBERG: No, I think that regulation is important, but it needs to be complemented by comprehensive industry self-regulation. You can't have one without the other.
MARTIN: Do you think that things have changed now? Has the Russian interference in the U.S. election by way of online media platforms, has that fundamentally changed the way these companies, these platforms, see themselves? Do they see a new sense of accountability to protect American democracy in a way they didn't before?
ROTHENBERG: Yes, but I want to put an asterisk on that because they all know that they participate in this big, global, open, porous supply chain and that they all have a role to play in securing that supply chain because that is essential not just to brand safety, not just to the safety of their customers, but now they recognize that it's essential to consumer safety as well.
MARTIN: But what does that mean? What does - when you say consumer safety business, making sure that the user, the person who is absorbing the content, is safe? To you, that does not mean exposed to propaganda?
ROTHENBERG: Well, let me point out that propaganda is protected speech. Russian propaganda in the United States is not necessarily protected speech under existing law, but propaganda is protected speech. I find us veering perilously close to the idea that we ought to verify truth and we ought to eliminate propaganda when, you know, propaganda is part of the essence of what made America. Tom Paine's propaganda, Martin Luther King's propaganda. So I think we need to be very, very...
MARTIN: But the people who absorbed that knew that it was Martin Luther King's propaganda. They knew the person who was disseminating it, and they trusted his opinion. And the problem here is that the users don't understand who's behind the content. They didn't understand that it was Russian groups who were putting up the propaganda.
ROTHENBERG: Which is why there are more safeguards that can be and must be taken, and also why companies need to take responsibility unto themselves for this. But, as I'm saying, you don't necessarily have to say, OK, well, we're in the truth business because that is not the business of media, and that's not the business of government.
MARTIN: Randall Rothenberg, thank you so much for your time.
ROTHENBERG: A pleasure. Thank you.
MARTIN: Randall Rothenberg is president and CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau. It's a trade association for the online advertising industry. We should note NPR is an IAB member and that NPR and other major news organizations get money from Facebook to make online video content. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.