Washington Attorney General sues Facebook

OLYMPIA — Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a campaign finance lawsuit today against Facebook for selling Washington state political ads without maintaining information for the public as required by Washington state campaign finance law.

The complaint asserts that Facebook intentionally violated the state’s campaign finance disclosure law, which was first adopted by initiative in 1972 and reenacted and amended multiple times since 1976 by the Legislature.

Ferguson has now twice taken legal action against Facebook for similar violations of Washington’s law on political advertising. Ferguson’s June 2018 lawsuit resolved in December 2018 with Facebook paying $238,000 – a $200,000 penalty and an additional $38,000 to reimburse the state’s legal costs and fees. 

Facebook subsequently announced a new policy that it would no longer sell Washington state political ads. Ferguson did not request Facebook to stop selling ads to Washington state political candidates. Facebook’s voluntary policy was not required by the consent decree signed by the court. Facebook adopted the policy unilaterally rather than comply with state campaign finance law.

As has been well reported, Facebook continues to sell advertisements to Washington state political committees – contrary to its voluntary policy. When it sells political ads in Washington state, Facebook fails to maintain legally required information about the ads, and make that information available to the public – a violation of state law.

Since November 2018, Facebook sold hundreds of ads to at least 171 Washington state political committees. The 171 committees paid Facebook at least $525,000 for these ads. Facebook ran these ads without maintaining the legally required information, as Washington transparency laws require.

Prior to 2018, the Attorney General had independent authority to enforce campaign finance laws in Washington state. In 2018, the State Legislature amendment that law to remove that independent jurisdiction and require a referral from the state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC). In February, the PDC referred the case to Ferguson after finding the tech company “repeatedly violated” campaign finance law.

 “Whether you’re a tech giant or a small newspaper, those who sell political ads must follow our campaign finance law,” Ferguson said. “Washingtonians have a right to know who’s behind the ads seeking to influence their vote.”

Today’s lawsuit, filed in King County Superior Court, asserts that Facebook hosted hundreds of ads in violation of state law since the time it announced it would stop accepting Washington state political ads.

Facebook sells Washington state political ads in violation of its own policy

Two Washingtonians, Eli Sanders and Tallman Trask, reported to the PDC that Facebook had sold a total of 269 political ads to 12 Washington state political committees for approximately $20,000, yet failed to make legally required information about these ads available for inspection to the public. Facebook confirmed these figures.

State investigators subsequently identified at least an additional 159 Washington state political committees that ran ads on Facebook since November 2018. Facebook collected more than half a million dollars from these committees, which include both candidate and initiative campaigns. Due to Facebook’s widespread failure to comply with the law, it is currently unknown how many total political advertisements or electioneering communications these 159 campaigns or committees sponsored on Facebook with their collective ad buy of more than half a million dollars.

Facebook’s failure to comply with Washington law

The PDC adopted specific rules for digital political advertisers in November 2019. These rules carry the force of law.

Washington campaign finance law requires commercial advertisers like Facebook to collect information on the sources and payments of political advertising and make it available for public inspection within 24 hours of the ad’s publication.

The law requires Facebook and other commercial advertisers to maintain the following information regarding ads they sell so that the information is available for public inspection:

  • The name of the candidate or measure supported or opposed;
  • The dates the advertiser provided the service;
  • The name and address of the person who sponsored the advertising; and
  • The total cost of the advertising, who paid for it (which may be different than the sponsor) and what method of payment they used.

Facebook places Washington political ads and information about them in an online, publicly available Ad Library. However, the Ad Library does not include all the information that Washington law requires advertisers to maintain and make available to the public about political ads in the state.

Specifically, the PDC identified the following required information that Facebook failed to maintain in its Ad Library for Washington political ads:

  • The address of the person who sponsored the advertising;
  • The precise cost and and dates of payment;
  • The name of the person making payment for the advertising; and
  • The method of payment.

Ferguson’s lawsuit seeks the imposition of a civil penalty, an injunction requiring Facebook to maintain and make available for public inspection all legally mandated information for Washington political ads on its platform; and reimbursement of the state’s legal cost and fees.

Intentional violation

Ferguson’s complaint asserts that Facebook intentionally violated Washington campaign finance law. Washington law allows a judge to triple campaign finance penalties if he or she finds the defendant intentionally violated the law. By law, campaign finance penalties go to the State Public Disclosure Transparency Account.

Assistant Attorneys General Todd Sipe and Zach Pekelis Jones are handling the case against Facebook.

-Simon Steinberger photo

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