AG Ferguson sues Facebook for repeatedly violating Washington campaign finance law on political advertising

AG Ferguson sues Facebook for repeatedly violating Washington campaign finance law on political advertising

Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit Tuesday against Facebook for selling political ads in Washington state that violate state campaign finance law.

Washington state law requires businesses that sell political advertising to disclose who is paying for the ads. Ferguson says Facebook hosted hundreds of ads in violation of state law, even after it announced it would stop accepting state political ads in Washington.

“Whether you’re a tech giant or a small newspaper, those who sell political ads must follow our campaign finance law,” Ferguson said. “Washingtonians have a right to know who’s behind the ads seeking to influence their vote.”

The lawsuit, filed in King County Superior Court, asserts that the social media giant intentionally violated the state’s campaign finance disclosure law, which was first adopted by initiative in 1972 and reenacted and amended multiple times since 1976 by the Legislature.

This week’s lawsuit is the second time Ferguson has taken legal action against Facebook for violations of Washington’s law on political advertising.

In June 2018, Ferguson filed a lawsuit that was resolved in December 2018 with Facebook paying $238,000 (a $200,000 penalty, plus $38,000 to reimburse the state’s legal costs and fees).

Facebook later announced a voluntary new policy that it would no longer sell state political ads in Washington.

The Attorney General’s Office said Facebook adopted that policy unilaterally, rather than comply with state campaign finance law.

The AG’s office noted Tuesday that numerous reports show that Facebook has continued to sell advertisements to Washington state political committees — contrary to its voluntary policy. Failure to maintain legally required information about the ads and make that information available to the public, officials noted, is a violation of state law.

Since November 2018, Facebook sold hundreds of ads to at least 171 Washington state political committees, according to the attorney general, and the 171 committees paid Facebook at least $525,000 for the ads.

The state Public Disclosure Commission referred the case to Ferguson in February after finding the tech company “repeatedly violated” campaign finance law.

The Public Disclosure Commission, the state’s watchdog agency on campaign financing, began its review after two Washingtonians, Eli Sanders and Tallman Trask, reported to the commission that Facebook had sold a total of 269 political ads to 12 Washington state political committees for approximately $20,000, yet failed to make legally required information about these ads available for inspection to the public.

Facebook confirmed the figures, state officials said.

State investigators subsequently identified at least an additional 159 Washington state political committees that ran ads on Facebook since November 2018, authorities noted, and said Facebook collected more than half a million dollars from the committees, which include both candidate and initiative campaigns.

Officials added that due to Facebook’s widespread failure to comply with the law, it is currently unknown how many total political advertisements or electioneering communications the 159 campaigns or committees sponsored on Facebook with their collective ad buy of more than half a million dollars.

Washington campaign finance law requires commercial advertisers to collect information on the sources and payments of political advertising and make it available for public inspection within 24 hours of the ad’s publication.

The law requires also Facebook and other commercial advertisers to maintain the following information regarding ads they sell so that the information is available for public inspection:

• The name of the candidate or measure supported or opposed;

• The dates the advertiser provided the service;

• The name and address of the person who sponsored the advertising; and

• The total cost of the advertising, who paid for it (which may be different from the sponsor) and what method of payment they used.

Assistant Attorneys General Todd Sipe and Zach Pekelis Jones are handling the case against Facebook.

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