Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced on Dec. 18 that Google will pay $217,000 and Facebook will pay $238,000 over allegations the companies failed to maintain legally required information for Washington state political advertising placed on their online platforms since 2013.
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.
On June 4, Ferguson filed two campaign finance lawsuits in King County Superior Court asserting Google and Facebook failed to maintain information for political advertising required by Washington state campaign finance laws.
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).
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.
“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 emailed statement. “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.”
The Reporter also reached out to Google for comment, but had not heard back as of press time. Google is headquartered in Mountain View, California, but has offices in Seattle and a campus in Kirkland. Facebook is based in Menlo Park, California, but has offices in Seattle and is planning a new research facility in Redmond.
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.
In response to Ferguson’s lawsuit, Google stopped taking purchases of political ads in Washington state and local elections. Any political advertiser, including Google and Facebook, who does not provide the legally required information is subject to complaints and regulations through the PDC.
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.