This morning, at a special meeting of the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, commissioners unanimously passed an "emergency rule" that makes it crystal clear: digital platforms like Facebook and Google must turn over details about the political ads they sell targeting elections in this state.
The PDC had already said back in December that it believed existing state law required Facebook and Google to disclose political ad information. But today's emergency rule-making, which was part of a speedy tune-up of Washington State transparency law necessitated by recent legislative action, removes any ambiguity.
The new rule can be read here (.PDF).
It goes into effect June 7, ahead of the November elections. At the same time, the commission will begin a final rule-making process that will take feedback from the public, with the aim of having a permanent rule in place by the beginning of next year.
The Stranger has been trying to get tech companies to comply with Seattle and Washington State laws on political advertising since last year.
While Pandora turned over some of the information The Stranger has requested about digital ads targeting Seattle's 2017 municipal elections, Facebook and Google have engaged in a long process of revised and re-revised disclosures to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.
Neither Facebook nor Google has made any disclosures directly to The Stranger, though city law says they must. (Rather, the companies have been making their disclosures to Seattle Ethics and Elections Director Wayne Barnett.) Today's emergency rule from the PDC makes clear that the companies must make such disclosures to "any person" who asks, "without reference to or permission from" regulators—and that such disclosures must be made "promptly upon request."
The emergency rule also clarifies the specific types of information that digital platforms and other commercial advertisers must provide when it comes to political ads aimed at Washington State voters.
The information and books of account that must be maintained open for public inspection... are:
(a) The name of the candidate or ballot measure supported or opposed or the name of the candidate otherwise identified;
(b) The name and address of the person(s) who sponsored the advertising or electioneering communication;
(c) The total cost of the advertising or electioneering communication, how much of that amount has been paid, who made the payment, when it was paid, and what method of payment was used; and
(d) Date(s) the commercial advertiser rendered service.
In addition, the emergency rule says "the advertisement or communication itself" must be disclosed, as well as a "description of the major work components or tasks... that were required to provide the advertising or communications services."
For digital platforms, that includes "an approximate description of the geographic locations and audiences targeted, and total number of impressions generated by the advertisement or communication."
While that last bit of language makes it plain that digital platforms do, in fact, need to disclose some targeting information for political ads aimed at Washington State, the phrase "approximate description" could easily become a refuge for tech companies seeking minimalist disclosure.
We've already seen something similar happen in Seattle, where Ethics and Elections Director Wayne Barnett has said tech companies must disclose information on each ad's intended and actual audiences. Facebook has so far interpreted that to mean it can, for example, merely disclose that Seattle election ads were targeted at "Washington"—when, in fact, they were targeted specifically at Seattle and, beyond that, at particular zip codes within Seattle.
Here's an example of why that's a problem: We only know that a 2017 candidate for Seattle City Attorney used narrow-targeted Facebook ads to push a misleading claim about property crime because I was able to get the candidate himself to admit to targeting his ads at particular Seattle zip codes and demographics. The PDC's emergency rule, while important and clarifying in many respects, would allow Facebook to continue to merely say ads were targeted at "Washington" when, in fact, they were targeted at a few particular zip codes—and at certain types of voters—within a very specific region of Washington.
When I pointed this out to PDC spokesperson Kim Bradford, she replied: “That is the kind of feedback we're hoping to get during the permanent rule-making process."
Today's emergency rule, Bradford said, was generated by PDC staff and commissioners without outside input from transparency advocates, tech companies, or other brokers of political advertising.
The language around targeting disclosure, Bradford said, "was our best effort at crafting something that would be analogous to what’s required for other advertisers [like direct mail and broadcast media]. That could change for the permanent rule.”