Judge Sides Against Facebook In Battle Over Washington State Political Ads

Siding against Meta Platforms, a Washington state judge ruled late last week that Facebook violated a law requiring companies that accept political ads to make information about them publicly available.

In a ruling issued late last week, King County Superior Court Judge Douglass North said the social networking platform intentionally and repeatedly violated the campaign-finance disclosure. North also rejected Facebook's contention that Washington's law violates the First Amendment. 

“This is clearly a very appropriate subject for disclosure, and the law is very constitutional," North said, according to journalist Eli Sanders, who has reported extensively on online political advertising.

Meta could be fined up to $30,000 per violation, according to Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

The decision comes in a lawsuit brought by Ferguson in 2020, when he alleged that Facebook was selling ads in the state to political committees, without complying with the state transparency law.

Ferguson specifically alleged that since November of 2018, Facebook sold hundreds of ads to at least 171 Washington state political committees, which paid Facebook a total of at least $525,000 for these ads. Facebook allegedly failed to make information about those ads publicly available.

That lawsuit marked the second time Ferguson sued Facebook over political ads. A prior lawsuit ended in a settlement in 2018, when Facebook said it would stop accepting such ads in the state. Facebook also agreed to pay more than $200,000 to resolve that earlier case.

Ferguson alleged in the subsequent lawsuit that Facebook violated its earlier promise.

“Notwithstanding its announced policy to no longer accept political advertisements for Washington elections, Facebook continued to accept or provide political advertising for election campaigns in Washington State after November 30, 2018,” Ferguson alleged in the 2020 complaint.

Washington's disclosure law, which dates to the 1970s, requires companies selling political ads to allow members of the public to learn information including the names and addresses of the ad purchasers and the total cost of the ad. The law applies to companies that sell "the service of communicating messages."

newer state law, which took effect in 2018, requires that companies running digital ads make additional information available -- including descriptions of the geolocations and audiences targeted, and the total number of impressions generated by the ad.

The newer law also explicitly applies to paid digital ads.

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