Google and Facebook sued over failure to disclose political ad spending

The Washington Attorney General’s office has announced that it has sued Facebook and Google for failing to disclose political advertising spending, a violation of state campaign finance laws.

According to Attorney General Bob Ferguson – best known for his successful campaigns to block President Donald Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ – his office will seek civil penalties, costs and legal relief, along with an injunction for failing to disclose spending on political adverts since 2013.

Political committees and candidates in Washington have already disclosed $3.4m (£2.5m) spent on adverts for Facebook and $1.5m (£1.1m) on adverts delivered by Google during this period.

While in other states political sponsors are responsible for disclosing their own advertising expenses, state law in Washington requires that advertising platforms maintain accounts of political advertising, including details such as expenditure. These accounts must be made available for public inspection for at least three years following the election.

According to documentation filed by Ferguson, a reporter from Seattle-based newspaper The Stranger requested to view details of political advertising expenses from both Facebook and Google but was unable to acquire the details. Ferguson has stated that Facebook failed on at least one other instance to provide access to information requested by members of the public.

The lawsuits, filed in King County Superior Court, state that the companies “failed to maintain and make available for public inspection documents and books of account specifying statutorily require information concerning political advertising sponsored through [their] online platform[s].”

“Washington’s political advertising disclosure laws apply to everyone, whether you are a small-town newspaper or a large corporation,” said Ferguson in a statement. “Washingtonians have a right to know who’s paying for the political advertising they see.”

Intense scrutiny has fallen on large internet companies following the 2016 US presidential election, with criticism focused largely on the proliferation of misinformation on social media platforms, largely credited with boosting support for Republican candidate Donald Trump. It has also been reported that Kremlin-backed actors used false accounts to pay for political adverts to polarise US voters; an issue under examination in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the extent of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Facebook has stated that it has recently introduced tools for users to see who is paying for political ads, such as tags on adverts disclosing the sponsor, and is looking forward to resolving the case quickly. Google has said that it will be engaging with Ferguson and has pledged to create a publicly accessible archive of sponsors paying to promote content on its platforms.

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