Facebook, Google to pay up over political ad rules in Washington state

The tech giants agree to pay $450,000 to settle cases alleging they violated campaign finance disclosure laws.

Marrian Zhou Staff Reporter
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Marrian Zhou
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Google and Facebook will have to pay up to settle campaign finance lawsuits in the state of Washington.

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Google and Facebook will pay over $450,000 to settle lawsuits over campaign finance rules in Washington state.

Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson on Tuesday said Google will pay $217,000 and Facebook will pay $238,000 to settle cases alleging the companies failed to maintain legally required information for political advertisements placed on their platforms since 2013. 

"Whether you are a small-town newspaper or a large corporation, Washington's political advertising disclosure laws apply to everyone," Ferguson said in a release.

Ferguson in June filed campaign finance lawsuits against the tech giants. Washington state requires platforms to maintain information about who purchased political advertising services and to make that information available to the public. The lawsuit alleged Google and Facebook didn't obtain, maintain or provide such information.

The companies reportedly admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement.

"We operated in compliance with local Washington laws until the state introduced new requirements under its campaign disclosure law in June. At that point, we paused accepting election advertising in Washington because our systems weren't built to comply with these new requirements," a Google spokesperson said in an email. "We've rolled out several features this year to ensure transparency in U.S. federal elections and we are looking at ways to bring these tools to the state level as well."

Washington state political candidates and committees spent $5.1 million on Facebook and $1.5 million on Google for advertising-related services in the past decade, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission.

In response to Russian interference in US elections, Facebook in 2017 rolled out new rules for advertisers in order to promote transparency on its platform. Political ads have to be verified and identified as political.

In May, Google also introduced stricter rules on election ads. Advertisers have to verify they're US citizens or lawful permanent resident in order to place political ads on Google. In June, Google paused accepting political ads in Washington in response to the lawsuit.

In June, Facebook also added a "Paid for by" disclosure label on top of political ads. If you click on the label, you'll be taken to a page where you can see how much money was spent on this ad and how many people saw the ad. A breakdown of the audience's age, gender and location is shown as well. 

"We're pleased that the matter with the Attorney General's office is resolved," said Beth Gautier, a Facebook spokesperson, in an email statement. "We believe all ads should be transparent on Facebook and aren't waiting for legislation to authorize political advertisers and house these ads in a public archive. Given the recent Washington State Public Disclosure Commission ruling, we're looking at how best to address its new disclosure requirements."

Facebook on Thursday planned to halt the sales of political ads in Washington State by the end of the year, said Gautier.

First published on Dec. 19, 11:47 a.m. PT.

Updates, 12:50 p.m. PT: Adds Google and Facebook statements. 

Updates on Dec. 20, 10:03 a.m. PT: Adds Facebook plans to stop sales of political ads in WA.