For this week's Stranger, I wrote a feature on how tech giants like Google and Facebook are currently ignoring Seattle's long-standing law on political advertising transparency—and won't even say why.
Kim Bradford, spokesperson for the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, recently told me that her agency has been closely following Seattle's attempt to get Google and Facebook to comply with local disclosure laws.
At the same time, the PDC has been looking into whether tech giants also need to comply with a state law that says all companies selling political ads targeted at Washington State elections must "maintain documents and books of account that shall be open for public inspection during normal business hours." (Those documents and books of account, according to the state law, must divulge the names and addresses of people buying political ads, "the exact nature and extent of the services rendered," and a clear money trail for any ad payment.)
"An initial look did seem to indicate that the state's commercial advertiser requirements would apply to Facebook, Google, and other forms of social media and online advertising,” Bradford told me.
Just as in Seattle elections, elections around the state are seeing a lot of money pouring into political ads on digital platforms. A quick spin through the PDC's campaign finance files makes this very clear.
In 2017 alone, nearly $900,000 in campaign expenditures from all over Washington State were marked as going to "digital ads."
Campaigns around the state that listed Facebook as a vendor reported placing hundreds of political ads with the company; "boosting" those ads (meaning, paying Facebook to put those ads into a heavier rotation on certain people's news feeds); and using the company to launch "targeted online advertising" at particular slices of the state's population. Campaigns also reported making similar ad purchases from Twitter and Google.
But the PDC reports don't tell the public what each of those digital ads looked like or precisely which groups of Washington State voters a particular ad may have targeted.
Disclosure by the tech companies of the "exact nature and extent" of their paid political advertising would tell us this. But, as I've reported, the tech companies are currently failing to provide this information.
Bradford, the PDC spokesperson, told me the commission plans to comment further on this matter early next year.
"We're hoping to get more concrete guidance in place before the 2018 election cycle—which I realize in some places has already begun," Bradford said.
In the meantime, Bradford told me, "We are continuing to monitor the situation. We’re interested in what answers people get—both you and the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.”