Today was the deadline for Facebook and Google to comply with a decades-old Seattle law that requires them to disclose "the exact nature and extent" of all political ads they sell in local elections, as well as the sources of payment for those ads. As I reported last month, neither company has been keeping that information "open for public inspection," as the Seattle Municipal Code mandates.
In letters to Facebook and Google dated December 12, Wayne Barnett, executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, noted that the companies had collectively sold hundreds of thousands of dollars in local political ads during the 2017 Seattle election season alone. He told both Facebook and Google to release the required data on those ads sales by today. But on December 20, both companies, through their lawyers, asked Barnett for 30-day extensions.
Barnett has since granted both requests on the condition that the companies use the 30-day period to get into compliance with Seattle law.
Google, through its attorney, pledged it would use the time "for the purposes of making a good faith effort to produce the information requested." Attorney Erin Christine Lama also told Barnett that Google plans to use the additional time "to notify its advertisers that it will be releasing this information."
Facebook's response was markedly different, in that the company offered no concrete indication it plans to comply.
"Facebook is requesting additional time in order to evaluate and respond to your letter," company attorney Jim McCullagh wrote to Barnett. "At this time, I do not know what form that response will take. However, I assure you that Facebook is taking this matter very seriously."
Facebook has requested an in-person meeting with Barnett, who has agreed to grant the company's request for a 30-day extension provided the meeting occurs this month. A meeting is now being set for late January, with Facebook representatives likely to travel to Seattle for the sit-down.
Neither Facebook nor Google have granted my requests for interviews about this issue—which directly connects to the broader national conversation about the need for greater transparency in online political advertising.
When asked whether Facebook and Google were even aware of the existence of Seattle's law before last month's requests that they comply, spokespeople at both companies declined to respond.
However, Barnett offered his own personal guess.
"It's always been my operating assumption that they were unaware of the law, or at least didn't think it applied to them," Barnett told me.
Seattle's law isn't the only one that could force a change in how digital media companies handle election advertising.
Both of Washington State's US Senators are now backing a federal law, called the "Honest Ads Act," that would require greater transparency from digital platforms in federal elections. And the Washington State Public Disclosure Commissions says a state law that's nearly identical to Seattle's appears to require greater disclosure by the tech giants in races all over this state.