Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced on Dec. 18 that Google and Facebook will pay $455,000 over allegations the companies failed to maintain legally required information for Washington state political advertising placed on their online platforms since 2013.
On June 4, Ferguson filed two campaign finance lawsuits in King County Superior Court asserting the companies did not maintain information required by Washington state campaign finance laws.
Under the two judgments signed by the court, each company is legally required to pay the state $200,000, plus attorney’s costs and fees ($17,000 for Google and $38,500 for Facebook), according to a press release from the attorney general’s office.
“Whether you are a small-town newspaper or a large corporation, Washington’s political advertising disclosure laws apply to everyone,” Ferguson stated in the release.
State campaign finance laws require political advertisers to maintain information about those who purchase advertising, and make that information available to the public. According to the lawsuits, Google and Facebook did not obtain, maintain or provide any of the legally required information associated with Washington state campaigns.
These requirements have been in place since 1972, when Washington voters approved the original initiative on campaign finance transparency. Through the act, voters also approved creation of the state’s Public Disclosure Commission (PDC).
In response to Ferguson’s lawsuit, Google stopped taking purchases of political ads in Washington state and local elections.
“We operated in compliance with local Washington laws until the state introduced new requirements under its campaign disclosure law in June,” according to a statement from Google. “At that point, we paused accepting election advertising in Washington because our systems weren’t built to comply with these new requirements. We’ve rolled out several features this year to ensure transparency in U.S. federal elections and we are looking at ways to bring these tools to the state level as well.”
Google is headquartered in Mountain View, California, but has offices in Seattle and a campus in Kirkland. Facebook is based in Menlo Park, Calif., but has offices in Seattle and is planning a new research facility in Redmond.
“We’re pleased that the matter with the attorney general’s office is resolved. We’re working hard to protect election integrity and prevent foreign interference,” Facebook spokesperson Beth Gautier wrote in an email. “We believe all ads should be transparent on Facebook and aren’t waiting for legislation to authorize political advertisers and house these ads in a public archive. Given the recent Washington State Public Disclosure Commission ruling, we’re looking at how best to address its new disclosure requirements.”
According to documents filed with the PDC, in the last decade, Washington candidates and political committees reported about $5.1 million in payments to Facebook and $1.5 million to Google related to advertising.
Washington state law provides the public the right to visit a commercial advertiser during normal business hours and see who is paying for the political advertising they run, and how much the campaign committee is spending.
Facebook and Google did not provide this access; for example, Eli Sanders, the associate editor of The Stranger, hand-delivered a letter to both companies’ Seattle offices requesting information on 2017 municipal election political advertising. Neither company provided him any of the legally required information.
Ferguson’s recoveries in these two cases will go into the state Public Disclosure Transparency Account as required by law. The transparency account was created as part of campaign finance legislation in the 2018 legislative session.
Senior assistant attorney general Linda Dalton and assistant attorney general Todd Sipe handled the cases. A summary of Attorney General’s Office campaign finance case resolutions is available at www.atg.wa.gov/enforcement-campaign-finance-laws.