Facebook in Violation of City Campaign Finance Law; Seattle
Authorities in Seattle found Facebook in violation of a city law requiring the complete disclosure of whoever bought election ads. The law, which was introduced as an attempt to promote transparency, could cost Facebook $5000 per violation.
The penalties were pointed out by Wayne Barnett, executive director at Seattle Ethics and Election Commission, who said that Facebook hadn’t disclosed details from the previous year’s elections and that he’ll be discussing the matter of the financial penalties with the city attorney. It was unclear as to how the social media network would respond to the penalty. Barnett also said that the details provided by Facebook were insufficient, since they only included the spending numbers, and did not match the reports submitted by the Seattle election candidates. The commission, along with the numbers, was also interested in obtaining copies of the various ads and whom they targeted.
Will Castleberry, a Facebook vice president, had earlier stated that they had provided the commission with relevant data and were in full support of following transparency in political advertising. The social media giant was involved in a controversy last year as well, when they claimed that the U.S 2016 Presidential elections had been influenced by Russians by using fake accounts on their platform. These allegations were denied by the Russians. Since then the regulatory laws regarding online ads have been under scrutiny and currently, there aren’t any Federal laws that force companies like Facebook, Google to identify their ad buyers as it is with television and radio.
The Seattle law, however, has been in place since 1977 and was brought to attention after the Russia allegations by a local newspaper, The Stranger. The law requires that the information regarding election ads be on public books, but tech companies weren’t included. The newspaper article brought the issue to public attention and Seattle then contacted Facebook and Google and asked them to provide the data. Some of the tech firms have announced that they will be disclosing their data voluntarily. This further put pressure on Facebook after their Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg claimed that they’re aiming to create and set new standards in providing transparency of online political ads.
Barnett said that Google’s request was pending for an extension on time and that Facebook, that had already been given the 30-day extension they had asked for, had been given enough time to comply. Facebook employees, therefore, have been in talks with the commission and both parties met in person last month.
Legal experts are not aware of any other similar laws or attempts to implement such laws in other localities of the U.S. It would be a surprise if Facebook decided to challenge the Seattle law according to Brendan Fischer of the Campaign Legal Center, a non-profit organization that advocates campaign finance regulation. He said that given the negative publicity surrounding Facebook, that failed to provide sufficient information regarding the 2016 Presidential elections and to back up their claims of Russian involvement, he doesn’t expect them to further draw attention to the matter.