Washingtonians have a right to know who’s behind the ads seeking to influence their vote, reiterated Attorney General Bob Ferguson yesterday.
"Washingtonians have a right to know who’s behind the ads seeking to influence their vote," reiterated Attorney General Bob Ferguson yesterday. KAREN DUCEY / GETTY IMAGES

Back in April, which seems like ten years ago, Washington state sued Facebook for "repeatedly" and "openly" violating the state's transparency requirements that apply to political ads sold on Facebook.

This was the second time in two years that Washington state filed suit against Facebook for violating campaign finance law, in a case that originally grew out of reporting by The Stranger's Eli Sanders.

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In the latest suit, Attorney General Bob Ferguson argued that Facebook has unabashedly continued to violate Washington law, which uniquely requires all political ad-sellers to make significant disclosures about who's paying for political ads that target state and local elections, as well as details about the reach of those ads.

Mark (Now-Worth-$100-Billon-Dollars) Zuckerberg's Facebook has claimed that the company is not even selling political ads in Washington state. The Stranger has searched Facebook's own ad library and found that to be untrue.

On Friday, a King County Superior Court judge denied Facebook’s attempt to dismiss Ferguson's latest campaign finance lawsuit. Ferguson celebrated the move.

“Today we defeated Facebook’s attempt to avoid its legal responsibility to Washington voters," Ferguson said on Friday. "Whether you’re a tech giant or a community newspaper, those who sell political ads must follow our campaign finance law. Washingtonians have a right to know who’s behind the ads seeking to influence their vote.”

In case you missed it, here's how we got here:

In June 2018, after The Stranger first demonstrated Facebook wasn't following state campaign finance law, Ferguson sued Facebook for the first time, saying: "What's happening now is not legal."

About six months later, Facebook settled that lawsuit by paying $200,000 to Washington state, plus $38,000 for the state's legal costs.

The terms of that settlement did not require Facebook to admit guilt, but Ferguson warned that the company needed to start complying with Washington state disclosure law right away or else "they’re going to hear from us again.”

He noted that he pays special attention to cases involving repeat offenders.

"Facebook subsequently announced a new policy that it would no longer sell Washington state political ads," the AG's office said in a statement [in April], explaining the background for the new lawsuit.

Ferguson had not asked Facebook to stop selling ads in Washington state. His December 2018 settlement with the company said nothing about such a move. Instead, the AG's office noted, "Facebook adopted the policy unilaterally rather than comply with state campaign finance law."

But, as The Stranger demonstrated in early 2019 and throughout last year's election season, Facebook went right on selling local political ads in Washington state despite its supposed ban on such ads.

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Facebook, armed with unprecedented resources, has attempted to argue that since it says it bans all political ads related to Washington state's elections, it doesn't have to follow state disclosure laws requesting details about those ads. Even the Seattle Times has raised its eyebrows at this claim.

Ferguson has argued that Facebook has been paid at least half a million dollars for ads that targeted Washington state's elections since November 2018. Again, Facebook claims they've banned these types of ads. Ferguson is requesting an injunction "requiring Facebook to maintain and make available for public inspection all legally mandated information for Washington political ads on its platform."

The AG has noted that it's difficult to count Facebook's ad sales, due to the company's "widespread failure to comply with the law."

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