Facebook has provided inadequate information to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission about ads bought by candidates last year, while Google has so far provided none, the commission’s executive director says.
Facebook and Google haven’t come close to complying with a law requiring the companies to disclose details of ads purchased by Seattle political candidates last year, the city’s chief elections watchdog says.
Wayne Barnett, executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC), said a bare-bones spreadsheet recently provided by Facebook was inadequate and that he’s discussing “next steps” with the City Attorney’s Office.
State and city laws on the books for decades say commercial advertisers that sell political ads to campaigns must make information about the ads available for public inspection leading up to an election and for three years after the election.
Seattle’s 2017 election included hotly contested races for mayor, City Council and city attorney, and television stations have long abided by the disclosure laws, allowing members of the public to view their records. The laws also apply to newspapers.
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But the city’s authority over companies like Facebook and Google is only now being tested — prompted by reporting by an editor for The Stranger, who left empty-handed after asking to inspect their local political-ad information late last year.
Both tech giants have offices in Seattle and have become major players in political advertising in the city and across the country.
Barnett sent letters to Facebook and Google on Dec. 12 explaining the city’s disclosure law and giving them until Jan. 2 to respond. He said Facebook had been paid at least $300,000 to disseminate ads on its platform during the city’s 2017 election cycle, while Google had been paid at least $150,000.
The companies asked for more time, so Barnett extended the deadline to Feb. 2. That’s when Facebook handed over a spreadsheet, but the information in the document is incomplete, according to Barnett.
In a statement Tuesday, Will Castleberry, Facebook vice president for state and local public policy, said the company is “a strong supporter of transparency in political advertising” and had provided “relevant information” in response to the SEEC request.
A lawyer for Google said in an email Feb. 2 that the company intends to provide the elections commission with required information by Feb. 21.
“Google has been working diligently to complete a production of information it has identified,” wrote the lawyer, Ben Stafford, promising an update next week.
Seattle’s law says political advertisers must provide the names and addresses of the ad buyers, the exact nature and extent of the ad services rendered and the consideration and manner of payment.
A spokeswoman for the state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) said commission staff believe the online giants must obey the state’s similar requirements.
“We have taken an initial look at the law — and we do believe and agree with Wayne Barnett that the law would apply to Facebook and Google,” said Kim Bradford, the PDC spokeswoman.
Bradford said the PDC’s executive director has spoken with Facebook representatives about the law but the agency has taken no formal action. “We’re waiting to see how it plays out in Seattle,” she said.
The spreadsheet Facebook provided to Seattle listed campaigns that bought ads from the company in 2017, with dollar amounts for most of those campaigns. But the amounts for some campaigns didn’t match what the campaigns themselves reported spending, and the information on the nature and extent of the ad services was vague.
Barnett asked the company for copies of the ads and for information about the intended and actual audiences for the ads. Rather than provide those details, the spreadsheet merely describes the “service provided” as “digital advertising.”
“For more than 40 years, Washington state and Seattle law have both required those who accept advertising dollars from political campaigns to be transparent with the public about the ‘exact nature and extent of the advertising services’ they provide,” Barnett said in a statement.
“We gave Facebook ample time to comply with the law, but their two-page spreadsheet doesn’t come close to meeting their public obligation.”
If Barnett and City Attorney Pete Holmes believe Facebook has broken Seattle’s law, Barnett will file charges.
Then the seven-member SEEC would hear the case and determine whether to cite the company for violations, which could involve penalties of up to $5,000 for each ad buy.