Facebook could potentially face $5k per ad fine for non-disclosure of details on election ads

In the first of its kind Seattle’s election authority has pulled up tech firms, under a 1977 law that requires companies, that sell election advertising, to maintain and make public records showing the names of those who bought the advertisement space, the quantum of the payments as well as the “exact nature and extent of the advertising services rendered.”

Seattle’s election authority stated Facebook Inc is in violation of its city law that requires a disclosure as to who buys and puts up election ads on its social platform.

In a statement, Wayne Barnett, the executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission stated Facebook must disclose details of spending in 2017’s Seattle city elections, failing which it will have to face penalties, which could be as high as $5,000 per advertising buy.

Barnett went on to add, he would discuss the next steps in the coming days with Seattle’s city attorney.

Although Facebook stated it has sent the commission some data, it isn’t clear how Facebook would respond if penalized.

“Facebook is a strong supporter of transparency in political advertising. In response to a request from the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission we were able to provide relevant information,” said Will Castleberry, a vice president at Facebook.

However, Barnett stated Facebook’s response “doesn’t come close to meeting their public obligation.”

Facebook has provided only partial spending numbers and has not provided copies of the advertisement themselves or whom these ads targeted.

The development assumes significance after Facebook’s own disclosure that Russians had bought ads, using fake names, on its social network to try and sway voters ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

Russia has denied trying to meddle in the U.S. election.

Buying an advertisement space requires only a credit card. Federal law does not currently force online ad sellers, including Facebook, Google and YouTube, to disclose the identity of the buyers.

Legislation that extends federal rules governing the political advertisement space on radio, television and the internet is pending although many tech firms have voluntarily announced plans to disclose some data.

In September 2017, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, stated that his company would “create a new standard for transparency in online political ads.”

At the core of the issue is a 1977 law that requires companies, that sell election advertising, to maintain and make public records showing the names of those who bought the advertisement space, the quantum of the payments as well as the “exact nature and extent of the advertising services rendered.”

This law went unenforced against tech companies until The Stranger, a local newspaper, published a story in December 2017, in the wake of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S elections, asking why.

Following this report, Seattle had sent letters to tech firms, including Facebook and Google asking them to provide the requisite data.

Both sides have been talking since months and in January 2018, Facebook’s employees met the commission staff’s in person.

“We gave Facebook ample time to comply with the law,” said Barnett. He went on to add, Google has asked for more time to comply.

“Given the negative publicity around Facebook’s failure to provide adequate transparency in the 2016 elections, I would be surprised if they tried to challenge this law,” said Brendan Fischer of the Campaign Legal Center.

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