When Ann Ravel was Chair of the Federal Election Commission, she specifically warned that America's lax attitude toward online political ads posed a great risk to our democracy.
“I mean, think of it," she said during an FEC meeting back in 2015. "Do we want Vladimir Putin or drug cartels to be influencing American elections?”
The FEC did nothing in response to Ravel's warning. Then, in 2016, Putin did exactly what Ravel feared he would do, quietly using Russian ads purchased on Facebook and other digital platforms to help Donald Trump's presidential campaign.
Ravel quit the FEC last year out of deep frustration with the agency's inaction on this and other matters. Ever since, she's been a loud outside voice calling for increased transparency in online political ads.
"In the same way a bank is required to know its customer to protect the financial system from exploitation by drug traffickers, arms dealers and other criminals," Ravel wrote recently in Politico, "Facebook ought to determine if a hostile foreign actor is trying to buy access to exploit our political system."
A resident of California, Ravel also co-wrote a September op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle calling on that city to take matters into its own hands. San Francisco, Ravel argued, should use local election regulations to "open up the black box of political advertising" on digital platforms.
So Ravel was "very pleasantly surprised" and "impressed" to learn that Seattle already has a law requiring exactly the kind of disclosure she wants to see from tech giants when it comes to political advertising.
"Seattle's law is what I was asking for," Ravel told me by phone late last week.
She called Seattle's regulation, which dates to the 1970s, "really forward-thinking," and she added that she hopes increased awareness of this city's law "will ultimately lead to local entities throughout the country enacting something similar."
As I've reported in recent weeks, Facebook and Google are not currently complying with Seattle's law, which requires them to disclose "the exact nature and extent" of all political ads they sell in Seattle elections, as well as the sources of payment for those ads.
But Wayne Barnett, executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, has told the companies they need to start complying. At the companies' request, Barnett recently extended their compliance deadline into early February.
Ravel told me she hopes the companies do comply, and she believes things might have unfolded very differently during the 2016 presidential election if Seattle's law had been federal policy.
"It would have been applicable to many of the communications that we know were clearly political ads purchased, in some cases, by Russian and probably other foreign entities," Ravel said.
Ravel told me she "can't assume a nefarious reason" for the delays by Facebook and Google in complying with Seattle's law. Though neither company has granted my requests for interviews on this subject, it's quite possible the companies were unaware the law even existed until last month.
But Ravel said she doesn't think it should be hard for Facebook and Google to turn over the information Barnett says they must now make public.
“It seems highly unlikely that it would be so difficult for them to find the actual individuals who purchased the ads, or groups that purchased the ads," Ravel said. She pointed out that Facebook has already released all the Russian election ads to Congress. "And I presume that there were far many more ads on the federal level than there were in Seattle," Ravel said.
She also warned that in general, tech companies tend to be reluctant to comply with regulations like Seattle's.
"I do think that these companies are very resistant to the possibility that there’s a regulation or a law that is applicable to them," Ravel told me. "And it is possible that they are going to try to think of some mechanism to argue that—at least as it applies to them—that the law is unconstitutional or has some other flaw. I wouldn’t rule that out.”
The text of Seattle's law states that tech companies—and any other entity selling political ads in local elections—must publicly disclose "the exact nature and extent of the advertising services rendered."
To Ravel, that language means Facebook and Google must "at least" turn over copies of all ads purchased in Seattle elections, along with information on which demographics were targeted by each ad.
“It would seem to me that, given what Facebook, for example, does, and has said that they do, is to embed in campaigns and help them to understand how to target individuals who will be more susceptible to their ads—as well as selling the ability to promulgate those ads through bots and other mechanisms—it would seem that all of those services, as well as placing the ad itself, would be included.”
Ravel added that in her opinion, Seattle law also requires the tech giants to disclose “all the iterations of an ad, and all the places where—as with ‘dark ads’—they’ve been shown for two hours and then no longer exist.”
If the companies' testimony before Congress last year is any indication, getting all of this data may prove challenging.
“The platforms, in particular, are so good at saying, ‘Oh we are just here to bring the community together, and we are concerned about any negative impacts that we had on the electoral process and on our democracy, but we also’—this is what they said when they went to testify before Congress—‘but also, you know, we have free speech that we have to protect,'" Ravel said.
"When it’s framed that way, you don’t think about the fact that, look, the courts have already talked about all of these issues. And the courts say that transparency, disclosure of information about who’s behind ads, who’s behind campaigns—that’s appropriate. That’s what the public needs.”
Facebook has said it plans to take steps to, essentially, regulate itself when it comes to online political ads. But Ravel warned Seattle—and the country as a whole—against accepting this kind of solution.
“First and foremost, I think it’s important that there be rule of law in this country," Ravel told me. "But also, I think that when people say that they’re going to police themselves, I think what that means is that they’re going to decide what information they give to the voting public. And for campaign finance rules, the whole purpose is transparency of who’s behind elections, and who’s funding them, and what they’re saying. It’s about the marketplace of ideas. And unless everyone—everyone—is held to the same standard, then it’s not going to be meaningful.”
Ravel said she believes Seattle's law—which is based on a nearly identical Washington State law—may be pretty unique nationally.
"I don’t believe there is any rule with this kind of specificity anywhere else," she told me.
Edwin Bender, of the transparency group Follow the Money, agreed with Ravel that news of Seattle's law is a welcome surprise. "First I've heard of this," he told me.
Bender, too, believes Seattle's law should be a model for other local governments—particularly in the wake of Russian election interference in the US presidential election.
“If something is happening at the federal level in elections and campaigns, it will quickly move down to the state level and down through the local level," Bender said. "I think the evolution of super PACs is a really good example. There are super PACs that we’ve now seen reporting in school board races.”
Broad adoption of Seattle-style laws in other municipalities and states could create "ground-up" pressure for nationwide accountability on the part of digital platforms, Bender said, and it could help the chances of the proposed "Honest Ads Act" at the federal level. That measure, which is supported by both of Washington State's US Senators, would essentially require in federal elections what Seattle's law now requires in local elections.
Smart regulatory action to rein in online political ads is urgently needed, Bender added, because elections warped by a lack of transparency in digital ads lead directly to decisions and policies “that cost people their lives, as well as tax dollars.”
At the same time, Bender said, companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter simply "need to step up and become adults. They need to say, ‘We have a bigger role to play in our democracy. We need to play it well. If we don’t, we are enabling bad actors.' Because, if they enable bad actors, they themselves are, by connection, a bad actor.”