You no longer have to login to access Facebooks archive of ads with political content.
The change was officially made one day after Seattle threatened to charge the company with election law violations. Carl Court / Getty Images

Facebook may believe it's immune from Washington state law regulating online political ads, but last week the tech giant did something that local election regulators—and other transparency advocates—have long been urging.

As part of an October 16 announcement that Facebook would expand the company's political ad self-regulation efforts to the UK, Facebook also, somewhat quietly, made a global change.

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Its online archive of political advertisements, new to Britain but up-and-running for U.S. ads since May, will no longer have a virtual wall around it that limits access to only Facebook members.

That's a step that Washington state regulators had been quietly telling Facebook it needed to take in order to comply with longstanding state and City of Seattle laws requiring political ad-sellers to make certain information "open for public inspection."

"Open for public inspection," Washington regulators told Facebook, means open to everyone—not just people who first agree to become Facebook members.

Move came after threatened charges

In fact, Seattle Ethics and Elections Director Wayne Barnett had recently drawn up charges against Facebook for its failure to make its political ad archive truly "open for public inspection."

But on October 15, less than a half hour after Barnett made Facebook's Seattle lawyer aware that charges were headed the company's way, that lawyer gave Barnett an early heads up that Facebook's political ad archive was, as of that moment, no longer being walled off.

The next day, October 16, Facebook shared this information with the world via a largely unnoticed sentence in its announcement that the political ad archive would be coming to the UK.

"As of today," Facebook executives wrote, the ad archive "can now be accessed by anyone in the world regardless of whether they have a Facebook account or not."

"As of yesterday" might have been more accurate, at least according to the e-mail Facebook's Seattle lawyer had sent Barnett on October 15. That e-mail contained a link demonstrating that the archive had already, as of October 15, dropped its wall keeping non-members out.

But in any case, after Facebook's public announcement of the move on October 16, company spokesperson Andy Stone told me it would be fair to say Facebook made the decision in response to a wide range of people telling it to stop walling off its archive.

"We received that feedback from many different parties and looked forward to making this move," Stone said.

Here in Washington state, in addition to Barnett's threatened charges officials at the state Public Disclosure Commission had also, and repeatedly, told Facebook its archive was not in compliance with state law, according to PDC spokesperson Kim Bradford.

“I think they’d gotten that message from local and state regulators loud and clear," said Seattle's Barnett. “I’m very happy with what Facebook did, but now we need to take a hard look at what else they can do to get into compliance with Seattle and Washington State law.”

Major gaps in Facebook's compliance remain

For example, when it comes to political ads targeting Washington elections, state law requires Facebook to disclose "the total cost of the advertising" as well as "how much of that amount has been paid, who made the payment, when it was paid, and what method of payment was used."

Facebook's political ad archive doesn't do any of this.

Instead, it only provides a range for the amount spent on any political ad. It also tells users the Facebook page an ad was purchased through—but not the actual person who purchased the ad.

This is problematic for many reasons, including those demonstrated in my story about an alleged scam related to Facebook ads targeting Seattle's "Amazon tax."

Facebook's political ad archive also doesn't meet Washington state's requirement that the company divulge the "total number of impressions generated" by online political ads.

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In this realm, too, Facebook's archive only provides a range.

Lobbyists for Facebook and Google are presently fighting to get the Public Disclosure Commission to change these and other transparency requirements.

The commission is aiming to make a decision on what to do by the end of November, and it will be having its latest public discussion about the matter this Thursday at 2 pm in Olympia.

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