Washington State Says Facebook Violated Political Ad Laws

(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

SEATTLE (CN) — Facebook intentionally violated campaign-finance laws by selling political advertisements without collecting required information about the sponsors, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson claims in a court Tuesday.

The social media giant “repeatedly and openly” failed to maintain records on political ads including the name of the candidate or measure at issue, the name and address of the person who sponsored the ad, the total cost of advertising and failed to provide public inspection of the data, according to the complaint filed in King County Superior Court.

“Whether you’re a tech giant or a small newspaper, those who sell political ads must follow our campaign finance law,” Ferguson said in a statement.

“Washingtonians have a right to know who’s behind the ads seeking to influence their vote.”

This is the second time Ferguson has sued Facebook for violating Washington’s law on political advertising.

After an initial suit in 2018, Facebook paid a $200,000 fine and $38,000 to settle the state’s legal fees and voluntarily stopped selling political advertisements in Washington state rather than comply with disclosure rules.

According to the state Public Disclosure Commission, Facebook continued to sell political advertisements without collecting the required information, selling hundreds of ads since November 2018 to at least 162 Washington state candidate campaigns or political committees for $505,382.

“Due to Facebook’s widespread failure to comply, it is unknown how many additional Washington political advertisements or electioneering communications Facebook hosted that were not reported to the commission — whether sponsored by noncompliant campaigns, dark-money sources, or other political actors,” the complaint says.

Facebook’s attorney told the commission the federal regulations bar claims against interactive computer service providers for decisions relating to the screening, monitoring or removal of third-party content.

Advertisements relating to Seattle City Council elections and Seattle ballot measures “were promptly removed from Facebook because they violated Facebook’s policies,” Craig Primis of Kirkland & Ellis, representing Facebook, said in a letter to the commission

Primis also told the commission Facebook has made a “good-faith effort to comply with Washington law.”

The commission rejected a proposed $75,000 fine — negotiated by its own staff — in February, and instead referred the matter to Ferguson for investigation, leading to the state’s suit on Tuesday.

The state seeks a temporary and permanent injunction requiring Facebook to maintain and make available for public inspection all required documents and financial information for each political ad the company accepted after Nov. 30, 2018, and triple fines if a judge determines the company acted willfully.

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