Washington sues Facebook and Google over failure to disclose political ad spending

Facebook and Google were paid millions for political advertising purposes in Washington but failed for years to publish related information — such as the advertiser’s address — as required by state law, alleges a lawsuit by the state’s attorney general.

Washington law requires that “political campaign and lobbying contributions and expenditures be fully disclosed to the public and that secrecy is to be avoided.”

Specifically, “documents and books of account” must be made available for public inspection during the campaign and for three years following; these must detail the candidate, name of advertiser, address, cost and method of payment and description services rendered.

Bob Ferguson, Washington’s attorney general, filed a lawsuit yesterday alleging that both Facebook and Google “failed to obtain and maintain” this information. Earlier this year, Eli Sanders of Seattle’s esteemed biweekly paper The Stranger requested to view the “books of account” from both companies, and another person followed up with an in-person visit; both received unsatisfactory results.

They alerted the AG’s office to these investigations in mid-April, and here we are a month and a half later with a pair of remarkably concise lawsuits. (This is separate from the Seattle Election Commission’s allegations of similar failings by Facebook in February; one is at the city level, the other at the state level.)

All told, Facebook took in about $3.4 million over the last decade, including “$2.5 million paid through political consultants and other agents or intermediaries, and $619,861 paid directly to Facebook.” Google received about $1.5 million over the same period, almost none of which was paid directly to the company. (I’ve asked the AG’s office for more information on how these amounts are defined.)

The total yearly amounts listed in the lawsuits may be interesting to anyone curious about the scale of political payments to online platforms at the state scale, so I’m reproducing them here.

Facebook

  • 2013: $129,099
  • 2014: $310,165
  • 2015: $147,689
  • 2016: $1,153,688
  • 2017: $857,893

Google

  • 2013: $47,431
  • 2014: $72,803
  • 2015: $56,639
  • 2016: $310,175
  • 2017: $295,473

(Note that these don’t add up to the totals mentioned above; these are the numbers filed with the state’s Public Disclosure Committee. 2018 amounts are listed but are necessarily incomplete, so I omitted them.)

At least some of the many payments making up these results are not properly documented, and from the looks of it, this could amount to willful negligence. If a company is operating in a state and taking millions for political ads, it really can’t be unaware of that state’s disclosure laws. Yet according to the lawsuits, even basic data like names and addresses of advertisers and the amounts paid were not collected systematically, let alone made available publicly.

It’s impossible to characterize flouting the law in such a way as an innocent mistake, and certainly not when the mistake is repeated year after year. This isn’t an academic question: If the companies are found to have intentionally violated the law, the lawsuit asks that damages be tripled (technically, “trebled.”)

Neither company addressed the claims of the lawsuit directly when contacted for comment.

Facebook said in a statement that “Attorney General Ferguson has raised important questions and we look forward to resolving this matter with his office quickly.” The company also noted that it has taken several steps to improve transparency in political spending, such as its planned political ad archive and an API for requesting this type of data.

Google said only that it is “currently reviewing the complaint and will be engaging with the Attorney General’s office” and asserted that it is “committed” to transparency and disclosure, although evidently not in the manner Washington requires.

The case likely will not result in significant monetary penalties for the companies in question; even if fines and damages totaled tens of millions it would be a drop in the bucket for the tech giants. But deliberately skirting laws governing political spending and public disclosure is rather a bad look for companies under especial scrutiny for systematic dishonesty — primarily Facebook.

If the AG’s suit goes forward and the companies are found to have intentionally avoided doing what the law required, they (and others like them) would be under serious pressure to do so in the future, not just in Washington, but in other states where similar negligence may have taken place. AG Ferguson seems clearly to want to set a precedent and perhaps inspire others to take action.

I’ve asked the AG’s office for some clarifications and additional info, and will update this post if I hear back.

About: Shawn

Shawn is an expert legal analyst, lawyer, and journalist.


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