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Seattle considers filing charges against Facebook over election law violations


SEATTLE (KOMO) - Facebook is running afoul of Seattle’s Ethics and Elections Commission and could face charges.

The social media giant is being accused of not fulfilling its legal obligation under Seattle law to disclose all necessary information on political ads it ran for Seattle candidates in the 2017 election cycle.

Wayne Barnett, the Executive Director of the Commission, said city law requires commercial advertisers like television and radio stations, newspapers and magazines and digital platforms like Facebook and Google, to provide more than just who bought a political ad and how much they paid.

“As commercial advertisers must provide to the public the exact nature and extent of the ads that were purchased through their platform,” said Barnett.

In December, a reporter for The Stranger told the commission Facebook was not giving him political ad information that must be given to anyone who asks for it.

When Barnett sent a commission request for the same information, he got back a spread sheet he said does not meet what is requires under Seattle’s law.

“That means a copy of the ads themselves, the ads that were purchased, as well as who they were targeted to reach and who they actually reached,” said Barnett. “None of that information was forthcoming from Facebook.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a vow last year to “make political advertising more transparent."

It followed Facebook’s admission that Russians using fake names bought political ads to try and sway voters in the 2016 election.

Federal law does not require online ad sellers to disclose the identity of the buyer, but Seattle’s law does, and a lot more.

“What the Seattle elections board is doing is very much at the vanguard of a broader discussion over how digital political ads should be regulated,” said Brenden Fischer of the non-profit Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C.

Fischer said the federal government is wrestling over how to require the same political ad disclosure rules that other media outlets must follow like TV broadcasters to online platforms like Facebook.

"Facebook is a strong supporter of transparency in political advertising,” Facebook’s VP of State and Local Public Policy Will Castleberry said in a statement.

He went on to say, “in response to a request from the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission we were able to provide relevant information."

According to Facebook’s spreadsheet, nearly $300,000 was spent by Seattle candidates during the 2017 election cycle.

The next move is Seattle’s.

“I need to decide whether or not we want to give Facebook another opportunity to comply,or if I want to go ahead and file charges and have that play out in public," said Barnett.

The penalty can be up to $5,000 per ad buy. That’s something Facebook won’t 'like.'

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