In response to The Stranger's reporting, the City of Seattle sent letters to Facebook and Google this week telling the tech giants they are definitely "commercial advertisers," as defined by city ordinance, and are therefore legally required to disclose detailed information on all political advertising they've sold in recent Seattle elections.
If the companies comply with Seattle's law, the public will end up with a much better sense of how local candidates for mayor, city council, and the city attorney's office are using digital media to stump for votes.
The letters, sent by Wayne Barnett, executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, came after my recent testing (here and here) of tech company compliance with Seattle laws on election ad transparency.
In short, what I found is that Facebook and Google—which together took in more than $450,000 in local political ad money during our recent city elections—are not complying.
Under Seattle law, the tech giants should be keeping a lot of details about local political ad purchases "open for public inspection."
They should provide, to anyone who asks, the names and addresses of the people who purchased political ads in recent Seattle elections; the "exact nature and extent" of the ads (which, for digital platforms, would include political ad targeting data); and how the bills for any political ads were paid.
This, by the way, is very similar to what some members of Congress, alarmed by Russian purchases of fake presidential election ads on digital platforms, now hope to require in future federal elections.
If the City of Seattle is successful in enforcing its local laws when it comes to Facebook and Google, then voters here will soon be able to know what every single one of the digital ads in a particular election looked like, as well as which demographic slices of the Seattle electorate may have been targeted by particular digital messages.
Barnett affirmed the law's requirements in his December 12 letter to Facebook, citing chapter and verse of the municipal code.
"As the Commission's Executive Director," Barnett wrote, "I am requesting under SMC 2.04.280.B that Facebook provide me, by January 2, 2018, with the information it is required to maintain for public inspection under SMC 2.04.280.A."
A nearly identical letter was sent to Google.
I reached out to the tech giants two weeks ago, after I tested compliance at their Seattle offices and found zero election ad records "open for public inspection."
Both Facebook and Google have told me they're looking into the issue. But so far neither company has gotten back to me with what they've found. I'll let you know when they do, or when I hear what they've done in response to Barnett's letters.
Seattle's tough law on election ad transparency, it turns out, traces back to 1977. For the full story on why it clearly applies to modern tech giants, and what all happened when I tested the law at local tech offices, pick up the December 20 issue of The Stranger.