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Sept. 26, 2022

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Facebook asks court to throw out parts of Washington campaign finance law

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Meta, Facebook’s parent company, is asking a court to strike down parts of Washington’s decades-old campaign finance law, arguing that requiring media companies to disclose information on political ads violates the First Amendment.

The request, filed last month in King County Superior Court, comes in the course of a long-running lawsuit filed by Attorney General Bob Ferguson that accuses Facebook of repeatedly violating state campaign finance law.

Washington’s law, passed by voters a half-century ago, requires ad sellers such as Meta to disclose the names and addresses of those who buy political ads, the target of such ads and the total number of views of each ad. Ad sellers must provide the information to anyone who asks for it.

Ferguson first sued Facebook for violating the law in 2018. In response, Facebook agreed to pay a fine and said it would stop selling political ads in the state, rather than comply with the law. Google, similarly, said it would stop selling political ads in Washington.

But they didn’t stop selling political ads.

Ferguson sued Facebook again in 2020.

In asking the court to toss Ferguson’s latest lawsuit, Meta seeks wholesale changes to the law, arguing it “unduly burdens political speech” and is “virtually impossible to fully comply with.”

Meta argues that Washington’s law is essentially unique among state campaign finance laws because of the disclosure requirements it places on sellers of advertisements — newspapers, television stations and, in this case, social media companies.

“In almost all other jurisdictions, disclosure obligations appropriately fall only on political speakers — not platforms that display political and all manner of other ads,” Meta writes in its court filing.

Washington’s law, Meta argues, is unconstitutional and has shut down digital forums statewide for core political speech.

Ferguson argues newspapers and TV stations have complied with the state’s advertising laws for decades.

“Meta, the world’s largest social media company, apparently believes that it is entitled to repeatedly disregard Washington’s campaign finance laws,” Ferguson writes in court documents filed Tuesday.

“If our local newspapers and TV stations provide information to Washingtonians regarding their political ads, so can one of the most sophisticated corporations on the planet,” Ferguson said in a prepared statement. “Let’s be clear — this multinational corporation is trying to undermine transparency in our elections.”

Meta declined to comment Wednesday, citing ongoing litigation.

The company sold at least 782 ads to Washington state political committees from the end of 2018 through September 2021 without properly disclosing the required information, according to the attorney general’s office. The office said the company accepted ads in Seattle’s 2019 City Council races, as well as for a wide array of other campaigns across the state, including candidates for state representative, the Port of Tacoma commission, Spokane’s City Council and Vancouver’s school board.

In a court filing, Meta admits it has sold political ads in Washington after it said it would stop. It said those who buy those ads are violating its policies and it takes them down when they are discovered.

Meta has made some details of political ads across the country available through its searchable public Meta Ad Library. However, the library does not include all the legally required information for ads running in Washington state.

The law allows a fine of $10,000 per violation. The penalty can be tripled if the violations were intentional.

Ferguson’s lawsuit asks for a substantial penalty, including tripling, commensurate with Meta’s “flagrant disregard of Washington law.”

A hearing in the case is scheduled for Aug. 26.

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