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Facebook says it doesn’t have to follow state election laws

Washington state disagrees.


Mikael Thalen

Layer 8

Posted on Mar 15, 2019   Updated on May 20, 2021, 4:58 pm CDT

Facebook is arguing that it does not have to follow Washington state laws designed to bring transparency to election advertisements, the Stranger reports.

In a letter to the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission on Tuesday, the social media giant pushed back against repeated attempts by the Stranger to obtain data on more than two dozen political ads that Facebook sold this year.

Those ads, which related to four Seattle City Council races as well as a ballot measure in the city, are technically violating Facebook’s rules. The social media company banned political ads in Washington state after election ad disclosure laws were made more robust at the beginning of the year.

Despite the strengthened laws and the social media site’s ban, political ads for issues in the Evergreen State persist. Facebook has argued that since its policies restrict such content, they cannot be considered a “commercial advertiser,” therefore exempting them from having to disclose ad data.

The ad disclosure laws give any citizen the right “to receive detailed information on the financing and reach of local political ads that companies such as Facebook sell.” But Facebook has seemingly found a way to continue selling ads while defying local laws.

“In other words: If Facebook has a policy banning local political ads in Washington, and Facebook nevertheless continues to sell local political ads in Washington, then those political ads are not covered by Washington’s disclosure laws, because Facebook has a policy banning them,” the Stranger notes.

The social media site has also cited Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which keeps websites from being held accountable for content users upload or create.

It is still unclear who will come out on top, Facebook or the state of Washington. Both Facebook and Google have already collectively paid $455,000 to settle lawsuits surrounding ad disclosure violations with the state’s attorney general, Bob Ferguson. But “by settling last year’s lawsuits with cash payments but no admissions of guilt,” the Stranger adds, no determination was actually made on whether Facebook can be forced to follow such laws.

Facebook argues in the letter, however, that it “has made a good-faith effort to comply with Washington law.” It is now in the hands of the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission to decide what will happen next.

“If these tech giants can’t actually ban political ads intended to influence local elections in Washington state, what happens if someday a bunch of supposedly banned Facebook or Google ads end up tilting a close race for city council, or school board, or mayor, or state legislature, or state supreme court?” the Stranger asks.

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*First Published: Mar 15, 2019, 2:25 pm CDT