Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson. Stephen Brashear / Getty Images

As a state lawsuit against Facebook heads toward a June 2019 trial date, a recent filing from Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson says that Facebook's efforts at self-regulation haven't gone far enough to satisfy state law when it comes to political ads.

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Facebook began trumpeting its self-regulation campaign amid outrage at the dark and lucrative market the company had created for online political ads, a market that famously allowed Russians to quietly purchase Facebook ads in rubles to influence the 2016 US presidential election.

In May, to shine some daylight on the hidden hands behind its paid election advertising, Facebook launched an online political ad archive. It was a step toward greater transparency, but it had many flaws.

Seattle's top election official, for example, threatened in October to charge Facebook because the company's archive wasn't actually open to the general public (instead, it was open only to Facebook members). The next day, the company changed course and made the archive available to anyone with an Internet connection.

But when The Stranger filed a formal complaint in September pointing out that Facebook's archive also fails to provide political ad details that are required under Washington state law, the company drew a line and told state regulators the archive does, in fact, provide "all required information"—and if it doesn't, Facebook argued, the company is immune from Washington election law anyway.

That didn't go over well with election regulators in Olympia, who on October 18 passed the matter over to Ferguson's office.

In his recent court filing, Ferguson amended his June lawsuit against Facebook to make clear that he also believes Facebook's political ad archive failed to provide The Stranger with information that Facebook is "required by state law" to disclose.

Originally, Ferguson's lawsuit had focused on Facebook's failure to respond to in-person requests for political ad information—requests made in accordance with a longstanding state law that requires companies such as Facebook to "maintain documents and books of account that shall be open for public inspection." Those documents and books of account must offer significant details on who purchased local political ads, what those ads looked like, and who the ads reached.

One possible reply from Facebook to Ferguson's original complaint could have been: Sorry for our mistakes in the past, but look, now we offer all the required information in our online ad archive!

Except, as Ferguson's new filing makes clear, Facebook doesn't.

Recently, against the wishes of lobbyists for Facebook and Google, the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission affirmed this state's political ad disclosure requirements, which continue to be significantly broader than what Facebook offers through its archive.

Google has stopped accepting political advertising from Washington state altogether, saying it can't comply with such rules.

Facebook, for its part, has continued selling political ads in Washington state while claiming its online political ad archive does satisfy all state disclosure requirements.

The company did not respond to questions about Ferguson's charge that Facebook's online archive has actually failed to deliver what state law requires.


UPDATE, 12:15 pm: Facebook spokesperson Beth Gautier said the company stands by its September statements (including its statement that Facebook has provided "all required information" about local political ads and the company's contention that, in any case, it has "broad immunity" from Washington's law mandating political ad transparency).

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Gautier also pointed to Facebook's October 23 launch of an Ad Archive Report, which she said shows "exact spend by advertiser." However, what the feature actually promises to show is an "estimated total amount of money an advertiser spent on ads," not necessarily the "exact" amount.

In addition, both the original Facebook Ad Archive and the newer Facebook Ad Archive Report fail to provide multiple data points that are required to be disclosed under current state rules and a "final rule" on political ads that was approved unanimously by the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission in November.

Gautier has not yet responded to questions about those omissions. She also did not say whether Facebook plans to continue selling political ads in Washington state in light of Attorney General Bob Ferguson's recent filing.