Facing campaign finance lawsuits from Washington State attorney general Bob Ferguson, tech giants Facebook and Google today agreed to pay a collective $455,000 to avoid upcoming trials in cases that arose from Stranger reporting.
That reporting began in November 2017, amid ongoing revelations about how Facebook and Google were used for Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, and as Congress was declining to take any steps that might bring regulation to the dark world of online political ads.
The Stranger, turning to a long-standing Washington State law, demonstrated that both Facebook and Google were failing to provide the public with details they're required to disclose concerning the precise funding and reach of local political messaging.
As a result, Ferguson filed lawsuits against both companies in June, alleging that Facebook and Google had ignored state disclosure requirements while selling millions of dollars in political ads aimed at Washington voters.
According to settlement documents filed today, the companies are now paying to end the lawsuits without an admission of guilt from either Facebook, which is paying the state $238,500, or Google, which is paying the state $217,000.
The money will go into Washington's Public Disclosure Transparency account.
In an interview, Ferguson said the payments represent "two of the largest campaign finance resolutions in state history" and reflect the seriousness of the violations.
The settlements with Facebook and Google, Ferguson added, should "serve as a deterrent for any other social platforms that think they can evade Washington State laws when it comes to transparency in our elections.”
He said that he was unaware of any other instance in which these tech giants have been forced to pay in connection with alleged violations of political ad transparency rules.
Next steps are up to the tech giants
Earlier this year, shortly after Ferguson filed his lawsuits, Google stopped accepting political ads aimed at local elections in Washington State, saying it could not comply with current transparency regulations.
"Which frankly, I noticed and appreciated," Ferguson said.
Google has, however, had a bit of difficulty in making its Washington State ad ban stick.
Facebook, for its part, has continued to sell ads aimed at local elections in Washington. Company spokesperson Beth Gautier did not make clear whether Facebook would keep on selling political ads in Washington after today's settlement, but did signal that the resolution to Ferguson's lawsuit was welcome.
“We're pleased that the matter with the Attorney General's office is resolved," Gautier said in an e-mail. "We're working hard to protect election integrity and prevent foreign interference. 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.”
What Gautier appeared to be referring to is a unanimous vote by members of the Public Disclosure Commission on November 29 to ignore the pleadings of lobbyists from Facebook and Google and affirm this state's strong political ad transparency regime.
Facebook's current political ad archive doesn't meet state requirements
The vote by the PDC also made clear that Facebook's current disclosures through its Political Ad Archive are not good enough to meet the requirements of Washington law. Ferguson also made this plain in a recent court filing. Asked today whether Facebook's online ad archive complies with Washington State law, Ferguson said simply: "No."
So what happens next?
“If Facebook is accepting political ads tomorrow," Ferguson said, "then you or any member of the public should be able to walk into their office and get the information that any entity must provide if they’re accepting political advertising [aimed at Washington's elections].”
For each local political ad sold, according to state law and rules laid down by the Public Disclosure Commission, companies such as Facebook and Google must disclose, in person and electronically upon request:
• A copy of the ad itself.
• Who or what the ad was supporting or opposing.
• The name and address of the ad's purchaser ("so that the public can know who paid for the advertising or communication").
• The ad's cost.
• And, for digital ads, the total number of impressions the ad received as well as "a description of the demographic information (e.g., age, gender, race, location, etc.) of the audiences targeted and reached, to the extent such information is collected by the commercial advertiser as part of its regular course of business."
So what happens if Facebook or Google doesn't follow Washington State's political ad rules going forward?
“I believe they will," Ferguson said. "If they don’t, they’re going to hear from us again.”
He noted that both Facebook and Google know he was personally engaged in this matter, and that he pays special attention when his staff brings him cases that involve repeat offenders.
As for the recent claims by Facebook and Google that they're actually immune from Washington State's transparency law, and therefore any compliance on their part is merely a courtesy, Ferguson said: “We obviously disagree with their arguments."
UPDATE, December 19, 2018: Facebook Will Halt Political Ad Sales in Washington State by the End of This Year.