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.
Yet the evidence suggests that 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 that 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 that 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’s 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 compliance gaps severely limit the public’s ability to keep tabs on who is injecting money into local politics. Additionally, such lapses can hurt state regulatory agencies’ ability to enforce campaign-finance laws.
By design, some of the data that media companies must collect mirror 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 its 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.
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.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE SEATTLE TIMES