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April 13, 2021

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Washington AG Bob Ferguson sues Google, again, for alleged violations of political-ad transparency law

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Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson has again sued Google, alleging the tech giant has continued to flout Washington laws on political advertising transparency.

In the lawsuit, filed Wednesday in King County Superior Court, Ferguson’s office accused Google of selling political ads without keeping required publicly accessible records detailing the sponsors and other information on the ads.

It’s the second such lawsuit filed by Ferguson against the tech giant. In 2018, Google and Facebook paid a combined $450,000 to settle a similar lawsuit filed by the state — a relatively tiny amount for the mega-corporations, which admitted to no violations in the settlements.

In June of 2018, three days after Ferguson’s first lawsuit, Google announced it was voluntarily suspending sales of political ads for state and local elections in Washington, calling the state’s disclosure requirements overly burdensome. Facebook later announced a similar ad moratorium.

Despite its announcement, Google continued to sell online political ads here, with 57 Washington candidates and political committees reporting 188 payments for ads on Google worth $461,344, according to Ferguson’s new lawsuit.

For example, Google accepted ads for the group Moms for Seattle in July 2019, seeking to influence Seattle City Council elections. It also sold ads on behalf of the Seattle fire fighters union in the same election.

Selling such ads is not illegal by itself. But Google hosted the ads without maintaining legally required information about them that would be available in a timely manner upon request by any person, as required by state law, according to Ferguson’s lawsuit.

Two people — Seattle journalist Eli Sanders and Tallman Trask, former policy director for a gun-control advocacy group — complained that Google failed in 2019 to promptly respond to their requests for such ad information.

State law and regulations adopted by the Public Disclosure Commission require Google and other commercial advertisers to maintain and make publicly available information including the names and addresses of persons who buy and sponsor political ads, as well dates the ads ran, and the cost and method of payment.

A Google spokesperson said in an email the company does not knowingly accept Washington state election ads.

“Advertisers that submit these ads are violating our policies and we take measures to block such ads and remove violating ads when we find them. We have been working cooperatively with the Washington Public Disclosure Commission on these issues and look forward to defending this litigation,” the company’s statement said.

Ferguson vowed to hold the company accountable.

“Google is one of the largest corporations in the world, and should be able to figure out how to follow our campaign finance laws,” he said in a statement. “Washingtonians demanded transparency in their elections. My office will honor the will of the people and continue enforcing the law to ensure our elections are fair and transparent.”

Ferguson filed a similar lawsuit against Facebook last April, alleging the company also had continued to sell political ads in Washington without proper disclosure.

Each violation of the state’s transparency law can result in a civil penalty of up to $10,000.

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