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Seattle says Facebook has violated its political ad transparency law

Seattle says Facebook has violated its political ad transparency law


It could be liable for up to $5,000 per violation

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

The city of Seattle, Washington, claims that Facebook has been violating its 1977 campaign finance law, which states that those who accept advertising dollars from political campaigns be transparent with the public about the “exact nature and extent of the advertising services,” as reported by Fast Company. If Facebook is found to be at fault, it could be liable for $5,000 per violation.

The issue began last December, when Seattle newspaper The Stranger attempted to request 2017 state election ad data from Facebook. Unsuccessful, Wayne Barnett, the executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, then sent Facebook a letter saying the company had until January 2nd to comply. Facebook requested a 30-day extension, which was granted.

Under state law — specifically a municipal code called “commercial advertisers’ duty to report” — advertisers who provide political advertising during a campaign must have the following available: the names and addresses of the people it accepted the ads from, the exact nature and extent of the advertising, and the “consideration and the manner of paying.” Though the law was initially enacted in 1977, it is interpreted to apply to all forms of advertisements, including print, television, radio, and yes, internet.

The information Facebook provided doesn’t match with the disclosure filings from the candidates themselves

Last Friday, Facebook served up a two-page spreadsheet, but Barnett says it falls short of providing the information required by law. The document lists candidate names, their Facebook page names, Facebook page addresses, total spend, service provided, and manner of payment. The problem is that a lot of the information Facebook provided seems limited, and it doesn’t match with the disclosure filings from the candidates themselves. For example, as The Stranger points out, Facebook’s document says Jon Grant, who ran for city council, spent $4,535 on Facebook ads, while Grant’s own filings say the campaign spent more than $55,000 on Facebook ads.

The Stranger says one possible reason for the mismatched numbers is that many of these Facebook ads are purchased through third parties, like political consultants, and not directly through the candidates’ own Facebook pages. Because of this, only showing the ads that were bought through a candidate’s Facebook page omits quite a bit of information and falls short of the transparency sought by Seattle’s 1977 campaign finance law.

Facebook’s disclosures about political ads on the platform have been under scrutiny over the past year, prompting CEO Mark Zuckerberg to draft a new plan regarding untraceable ads. However, Facebook’s promise doesn’t go as far as a new bill the Senate introduced in October called the Honest Ads Act. That would require companies like Facebook to keep copies of political ads and make information about them publicly available, in the same vein as political ads on other mediums, like television.