Two of the largest information companies on Earth are making a mockery of Washington state campaign law.
The law requires Facebook and Google, like every other carrier of political advertising in the state, to keep a publicly available ledger of all political advertisement buyers and other information. But neither company obeys it.
Instead, each announced in 2018 that they would stop accepting advertisements for state and local political campaigns in Washington. This shutdown and a combined $450,000 payment were supposed to resolve a lawsuit Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed against the companies for failing to disclose political advertisement transactions.
The settlement had reasonable enough logic: If the two online advertising Goliaths couldn’t manage to keep political advertising records available for public inspection, then they’d get out of that line of business. But then Facebook and Google tossed the deal glibly aside and went right back to business. Washington needs stronger laws to hold campaigns as well as tech companies accountable for meeting disclosure requirements.
Seattle Times reporter David Gutman reported Monday that Facebook and Google have each freely sold advertising across the political spectrum within Washington during this campaign season. This is their right, provided they follow the disclosure instructions in state law. Google and Facebook have shown no more willingness to obey the rules than before Ferguson first took them to court.
It defies belief to see companies that make billions of dollars from organizing millions of Americans’ online lives claim they cannot adequately track the advertising. Google and Facebook are publishing advertisements and must obey regulations of venturing into that marketplace, or else withdraw from it.
Washington is among at least five states that have special political restrictions under new disclosure laws, according to Google’s page of advertising restrictions. Yet in the real world, campaigns buy a torrent of ads, and the tech companies are serving them out to thousands upon thousands of users.
This state must ratchet up its response. Already, the state Public Disclosure Commission has filed a new complaint against Facebook over a fresh round of alleged inadequate record keeping. Spectacularly wealthy, tech-innovating companies can surely comply with a three-sentence state law.
The matter ought to resonate deep within both companies’ headquarters. For much of October, a letter signed by more than 250 Facebook workers has aired a complaint within the company against its laissez-faire approach to political advertising, a situation that is mirrored far beyond the company’s California campus.
Americans have watched one presidential election cycle dragged into the muck of disinformation and have deep concerns about further destabilization in 2020. For Facebook and Google, the time has arrived to map out terms for political advertising that can be productive in American’s democratic process. If the companies and campaigns continue to fail at cooperation, lawmakers should impose new restrictions on how political business is done.