The tech giant banned local political ads in Washington State nine months ago, but hasnt been able to stop itself from selling them.
Google banned local political ads in Washington State about nine months ago, but hasn't been able to stop itself from selling them. David Ramos / Getty Images

Google just announced it's banning political ads in all of Canada because it can't get its automated systems to comply with strong transparency requirements passed by the Canadian government.

If that's sounds familiar, it may be because Google announced a similar ban in Washington State last June, for similar reasons.

But Google has had repeated trouble getting its Washington State ban to stick, suggesting that a ban covering all of Canada could end up with its own significant holes.

At the time Google announced its Washington State ban, the tech giant said it was unable to comply with this state's nation-leading political ad transparency rules.

Google was also facing a lawsuit from Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson over its failure to provide sufficient disclosures for local political ads going back many years. Facebook had been sued by Ferguson, too, for the same reason, and the companies ultimately paid $455,000 to settle the lawsuits. Today both Facebook and Google say they've banned political ads aimed at Washington State's local elections and ballot measures.

But the bans have been far from flawless.

Since June 2018, when Google announced its ban, the company has sold nearly $20,000 worth of political ads aimed at Washington's local elections.

The most recent example comes from Spokane, Washington's second-largest city, where nearly nine months into its ban Google sold $6,500 in political ads to a local campaign aiming to pass a ballot measure that would increase emergency services funding.

The deal the Spokane campaign booked with Google included more than a million impressions for political ads targeting likely voters in that city, which has a population of around 210,000 people. Only 40,000 Spokane voters ended up voting on the ballot measure, which passed with a more than 64 percent majority.

Google has said such purchases violate its policies and that "we take measures to block these types of ads."

But those measures have repeatedly proved insufficient here in Washington, where over and over certain political campaigns have managed to buy Google ads despite the ban.

One candidate for the Washington State Legislature even provided The Stranger with an e-mail showing a Google employee suggesting the candidate buy thousands of dollars in political ads months after the company's ban took effect.

This has raised questions of whether Google, by selling political ads to certain Washington State campaigns despite its ban, is giving those campaigns an unfair competitive advantage.

In Spokane, the campaign that was recently able to buy more than a million Google ad impressions faced no organized opposition. But imagine a small local race here in Washington that's just like the one in Spokane, except it's hotly contested and the margin of victory ends up being very narrow.

In that hypothetical scenario, which could also now happen in Canada, if the winning campaign were allowed to purchase more than a million impressions worth of banned Google ads, the losing campaign could then end up with a credible claim that those banned Google ads swung the race.

Facebook, for its part, has had similar difficulty with its ban on local political ads in Washington State.

Although Facebook's ban only took effect two months ago, it's since sold more than two dozen political ads to four different Seattle City Council candidates and one Seattle ballot measure supporter.

Facebook, which reportedly has 24 percent of the Canadian online advertising market (as opposed to Google's 48 percent), is not yet banning political ads in Canada.