Washington state is suing Google and Facebook for failing to disclose political ad buyers

Key Points
  • Washington's attorney general filed lawsuits alleging that Google and Facebook failed to keep legally required records on political advertising.
  • Under state law, advertisers are required to make certain election ad information available to the public. Google and Facebook have not done so since 2013, the suit alleges.
  • Although tech giants have recently issued stricter policies around political ad transparency, the complaint underscores how they have disregarded state law.
Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg
Matt McClain | The Washington Post | Getty Images

Washington state's attorney general is suing Google and Facebook for allegedly failing to provide adequate public information about who buys election ads on their platforms.

The complaints, filed by the office of Attorney General Bob Ferguson, claim the tech giants haven't properly maintained and publicized information about who's buying election ads. The incomplete data pertains to the names and addresses of buyers, as well as the total cost of those ads and payment methods used.

Federal law requires that political ads in print and on TV indicate who purchased them, but digital advertisements don't yet require the same disclosures. In Washington state, however, any advertiser must maintain public records about political ads that anyone can browse.

Google and Facebook declined to produce that information when a local newspaper asked for it, the suits allege.

The tech platforms have faced increased criticism for their roles in enabling Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Recently, Facebook, Google, Twitter and others announced new policies to provide more transparency. Facebook will now require identity verification for anyone buying election and issue-based ads and force disclosure of the buyer. Google will have a similar policy.

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Still, Washington's complaints could set a precedent for other states with similar laws to file suits.

"Washington's political advertising disclosure laws apply to everyone, whether you are a small-town newspaper or a large corporation," Ferguson said in a press release regarding the lawsuits. "Washingtonians have a right to know who's paying for the political advertising they see."

The state is seeking penalties and injunctions against both companies.

You can read the complaint against Google here and Facebook here.

A Google spokesperson said that the company is "committed to transparency and disclosure" and is currently reviewing the complaint and will be engaging with the attorney general's office.

Facebook director of product management, Rob Leathern, said in a statement that Facebook's new tools "set a new standard for transparency in digital advertising," and that Attorney General Ferguson has raised "important questions" that it plans to work with his office to resolve.