Washington’s campaign finance watchdog on Thursday rejected a settlement that its own staff had negotiated with Facebook over charges the social media giant has repeatedly violated state campaign finance law.
Instead of accepting the rather modest settlement — a proposed $75,000 fine for the $550 billion company and no admission of guilt — the Washington Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) referred the matter to Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson for further investigation.
It’s the second time in a little more than a year that Ferguson’s office will look into Facebook for allegedly violating Washington’s strict laws on political advertising transparency. In December 2018, after Ferguson filed a lawsuit against Facebook for the same type of violations, Facebook agreed to a $200,000 fine.
Facebook and fellow tech behemoth Google both pledged to stop accepting local political ads in Washington after they were accused of running afoul of state law, which requires ad sellers to disclose specific information on the names and addresses of people who buy ads, who ads target and the total number of views of each ad. Newspapers and TV and radio stations have long complied with these requirements.
But both companies have continued to sell political ads in Washington, albeit in much-reduced numbers. In 2019, Facebook sold tens of thousands of dollars worth of political ads — at least $66,000, but potentially as much as $275,000 or more, according to filings with the PDC. It’s difficult to get an exact estimate, because campaigns often disclose in filings that they’ve paid a consultant. If the consultant then buys ads from Facebook, that often doesn’t show up in filings.
“I appreciate the referral from the PDC,” Ferguson said Thursday. “Facebook needs to follow Washington’s campaign finance laws, just like everybody else.”
Facebook has said it tries to filter out local political ads in Washington and remove them when it finds them. It has also argued, circularly, that it’s not violating state law concerning political ads because it has said it doesn’t sell political ads.
“Facebook does not qualify as a ‘commercial advertiser’ under Washington’s Disclosure Law because it is not accepting, providing, or selling Washington Political Ads,” the tech giant’s lawyer wrote to the PDC.
But on Thursday, as it pushed for the settlement, the company could not promise that it would follow state law in the future.
“It is our intent to comply with Washington statute to the maximum extent that we can,” Winn Allen, Facebook’s lawyer, told the PDC. “I cannot guarantee you that the PDC will always view Facebook’s responses in 100% compliance.”
The fact that the proposed settlement would not bring “finality” pushed the five-member PDC to reject the settlement.
“There still remains a high likelihood that there will be violations in the future,” Commissioner William Downing said. “Tweaking the penalty is not going to enhance the deterrence effects. We as a commission have to insist on not substantial compliance, but full compliance.”
Ferguson’s 2018 lawsuit arose after a report by The Stranger, in which an editor asked the web giants to provide the information required by state law but was rebuffed. In 2019, after seeing the company continued to sell political ads here without disclosing the required information, the editor, Eli Sanders, and another private citizen, Tallman Trask, policy director of the Alliance for Gun Responsibility, filed complaints with the PDC.
State administrative code requires digital advertising platforms to provide the public with the demographic information of the audience it’s targeting, to the extent it collects that information. Allen said Facebook interprets that as meaning they have to disclose the targeted age, gender and location of the audience. But Trask, the complainant, noted that you can buy political ads on Facebook that target, for instance, divorced parents who work at tech companies, enjoy soccer and went to an Ivy League school.
“Whether or not an advertiser collects that information determines what they have to release, rather than this sort of predetermined categorization,” Trask said.
Ferguson, in a letter last week to the PDC, seemed to be urging the agency to take harsher action against Facebook, almost asking them to let him jump in. He wrote to remind the PDC that it could refer the case to his office for more investigation and “court action.”
“My office takes repeat violations of campaign finance laws seriously,” Ferguson wrote. “With regard to Facebook or any respondent that the Commission determines to be repeat violators of state campaign finance laws warranting prompt state action in court, my office stands ready to accept and act on the Commission’s referrals.”