When it comes to political advertising, Google and Facebook must abide by the same rules as everyone else. This is not only fair but vital for preserving transparency and accountability in our elections.
When it comes to protecting the integrity of our elections, everyone has an equal obligation to follow the law.
That includes online behemoths such as Google and Facebook, which are becoming increasingly big players in political advertising, both nationally and in Washington state.
By accepting these political-campaign dollars, the companies also are accepting the responsibility to keep detailed records of who is using their online platforms to influence millions of voters.
These transparency requirements, which Washington state voters approved by citizen initiative in 1972, are the same ones regularly followed by local TV stations, newspapers and print shops that accept money in exchange for airing or printing political ads.
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Yet the evidence suggests Google and Facebook have repeatedly failed to abide by the same rules. In separate lawsuits filed against the two tech giants this week, Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson asserts the companies failed to record the names and addresses of people buying political advertising, along with how much the ads cost and how they were paid for.
Furthermore, it appears the companies failed to provide this information to members of the public for inspection — something the law also requires. Eli Sanders, an associate editor at The Stranger, asked to view these records at Facebook and Google’s local offices last fall and was denied, prompting another citizen to follow up and launch a complaint that led to Ferguson’s lawsuit.
At their core, these kind of compliance gaps severely limit the public’s ability to keep tabs on who is injecting money into local politics.
Additionally, such lapses also can hurt state regulatory agencies’ ability to enforce campaign-finance laws.
By design, some of the data media companies must collect mirrors what political committees and campaigns are required to report elsewhere.
This extra layer of accountability means that when a political campaign breaks the rules — such as by not clearly identifying who paid for their TV spot or digital banner ad — regulators with the state Public Disclosure Commission can go directly to the TV station, printer or online ad platform to find answers.
“It’s all about having multiple sources to verify who is seeking to influence elections, which was one of the primary purposes of I-276,” said Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, referring back to the title of the 1972 citizen initiative.
In recent years, more campaigns have turned to Facebook and Google for online advertising, making this issue a crucial one to resolve.
According to Ferguson’s lawsuit, Washington state candidates and political committees reported nearly $860,000 in payments for Facebook ads last year — a sharp increase from the $310,000 they reported during midyear elections in 2014, and dwarfing the $148,000 spent in the 2015 local election cycle.
If Facebook and Google are going to serve as platforms for political advertising, while pocketing the millions of dollars in revenue that comes with that, they have to follow the rules.
It really is that simple.