Facebook Violating Political Ad Law, Seattle Watchdog Says

Facebook has failed to comply with a Seattle law requiring companies to reveal detailed information about political ads, according to the city's Ethics and Elections Commission.

The Seattle law, which dates to 1977, requires companies selling political ads to maintain publicly available files containing a host of information about the ad buys, including names and addresses of purchasers. That law's broad definition of political advertising includes ads appearing in any "means of mass communication, used for the purpose of appealing, directly or indirectly, for votes or for financial or other support in any election campaign."

An investigation late last year by the newspaper The Stranger concluded that tech companies failed to comply with the Seattle law. Following that report, Wayne Barnett, the head of the city's Ethics and Elections Commission, requested data from Facebook relating to 2017 political ads.

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Instead, Facebook sent Barnett a two-page spreadsheet late last week. That document contains some minimal information, but Barnett says it "doesn’t come close to meeting their public obligation," according to The Stranger.

The scrutiny in Seattle comes as regulators on Capitol Hill are considering new rules regarding disclosure of online political ads. Last October, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), Mark Warner (D-Virginia) and John McCain (R-Arizona) introduced the Honest Ads Act, which would require some web publishers with at least 50,000,000 monthly viewers to maintain publicly available copies of political ads purchased by groups spending more than a total of $500. The bill would also require those web companies to maintain public records about the target audience, number of views, rates charged, and dates and times of publication.

Much of the push for stronger regulations stems from revelations that Russian operatives purchased campaign ads that ran on Facebook, Google and Twitter during the 2016 presidential election cycle. On Facebook alone, Russia operatives spent around $100,000 on 3,000 ads. The Kremlim-backed ads reached an estimated 146 million people, Facebook said last November.

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