Facebook & Google sued over election ads in Washington state

Facebook & Google sued over election ads in Washington state
Silicon Valley social media giants may face millions of dollars in penalties from two lawsuits filed in Seattle, Washington, arguing that they have failed to comply with state and local laws on election advertising.

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued Facebook and Google on Monday, saying they have not produced documents requested by the media and members of the public related to political ads for local and state elections since 2013.

“We can’t have a world here in Washington State where we’re transparent on radio buys, we’re transparent on TV buys, but we’re not transparent when it comes to ads on Facebook and Google,” Ferguson told The Stranger, a Seattle newspaper. “That’s not okay.”

The lawsuit is apparently not related to the claims of 'Russian online interference' in the 2016 US presidential election, though Ferguson called them a “backdrop” showing how important transparency was. Instead, the case relates to the state and local laws adopted in the 1970s, long before Google or Facebook were in existence.

Washington State Initiative 276, passed in 1972, includes the section called “Commercial Advertisers' Duty to Report.” A nearly identical ordinance was passed in 1977 by the City of Seattle. The definitions of “commercial advertiser” and “political advertising” in the laws are so broad, the authorities say, they apply to digital platforms that have since been established, such as Google and Facebook.

Facebook has sought to deflect criticism over the so-called “dark posts” and other advertising, by creating a registry of ads with political content. Even that falls short of the reporting requirements in Seattle and Washington, however, as the laws require the documents to be “open for public inspection,” rather than just Facebook users.

Facebook and Google are “not following the law. They’re not even close,” Ferguson said.

According to the AG’s court filings, political campaigns in Washington state have spent a total of $4.6 million on Facebook and Google ads since 2008. There were 650 political ads on Facebook just during the 2016 municipal elections in Seattle, and the company’s failure to turn over documents goes back to 2013, Ferguson’s office told The Stranger. State law provides for fines of up to $10,000 per violation, meaning that Facebook and Google could end up owing Washington state millions.

In addition to fines, the AG is asking for Facebook and Google to be charged for the state’s costs of investigating their advertising practices, and even for the costs of the trial.

Ferguson is convinced he can wrestle the tech giants into submission, pointing to his 2016 victory over the Grocery Manufacturers Association that resulted in a $18 million penalty, the greatest campaign finance fine ever.

“I'm obviously open to a resolution short of a trial,” he told The Stranger. While Google is yet to comment on the litigation, Facebook appears to have taken the hint.

“Attorney General Ferguson has raised important questions and we look forward to resolving this matter with his office quickly,” Rob Leathern, Facebook’s director of product management, told the Stranger by email.

Ferguson, a Democrat, has filed lawsuits against a number of Trump administration policies over the past 500 days, including the travel ban and DACA. He also went after Motel 6 over the company’s cooperation with immigration enforcement officials.

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