Seattle says Facebook has violated a 1977 political advertising law

Waging war.
Waging war.
Image: Reuters/Chris Helgren
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Seattle, Washington, has taken the issue of who pays for political ads on Facebook into its own hands.

The head of the city’s election commission said in a statement that Facebook is in violation of a 1977 Seattle campaign-finance law requiring companies that sell political ads to keep public records on who paid for such advertisements, according to Reuters and  The Stranger, a local newspaper. Seattle’s effort seems to be the first local attempt to regulate online political ads in the US, according to Reuters.

Seattle’s law says anyone selling advertising in local elections has to disclose “the exact nature and extent of the advertising services rendered,” including payment amounts and methods. It covers advertising on radio, TV, billboards, brochures, and myriad other media—including “other means of mass communications,” which, in the city’s interpretation, can also mean the internet.

In December, The Stranger outlined how mayoral candidates in the 2017 race spent tens of thousands of dollars on Facebook and Google ads, according to campaign disclosures. However, the paper noted, there was no record of what these ads looked like or whom they were targeting. The law says this sort of information about the ads must be made available to the public during an election and for the following three years.

As part of its reporting, The Stranger asked a number of big tech companies why they weren’t complying with the law. Shortly after, the city sent the companies letters telling them they are required to hand over the data.

Facebook finally sent Seattle authorities some documentation on Friday (Feb. 2), which included information on some ad expenditures, but not the images of the ads, or details on who was targeted. This, the city says, was inadequate in the eyes of the law. Wayne Barrett, executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, told both The Stranger and Reuters that the two-page pdf the company provided “doesn’t come close to meeting their public obligation.”

Barrett told Reuters the company had ample time to provide the appropriate documentation, and that he’d consult with the city’s attorney on next steps; the penalty for failing to comply is $5,000 per ad buy.

“Facebook is a strong supporter of transparency in political advertising,” said Will Castleberry, Facebook’s vice president for state and local public policy, in a statement sent to Quartz. The company says it fulfilled its obligation to the city. “In response to a request from the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission we were able to provide relevant information.”

Big tech companies have been under pressure to show exactly which entities advertised on their platforms during the 2016 presidential election, and how they did so. The pressure has increased since Facebook acknowledged during congressional hearings in October that during the 2016 campaign, Russian actors paid for divisive and partisan ads seen by more than 100 million Americans.

Lawmakers in Washington have proposed the Honest Ads Act, which would regulate online political advertising on a federal level.