OLYMPIA — Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a campaign finance lawsuit recently against Google for unlawfully failing to maintain key information regarding state political ads that it sold, and failing to provide that information to individuals who requested it.
Washington’s voter-approved Fair Campaign Practices Act requires political advertisers to maintain basic information about the political ads they sell in Washington and provide that information to the public upon request. The information that must be retained and disclosed includes the cost of the ad, the date of the payment, the name of the sponsor and the person paying for the advertisement, and the sponsor’s address. Ferguson’s lawsuit also asserts that the company failed to provide that information to members of the public when requested.
Ferguson has now twice taken legal action against Google for similar violations of Washington’s law on political advertising. Ferguson’s June 2018 lawsuit against the company resolved in December 2018 with Google paying $217,000 — a $200,000 penalty and an additional $17,000 to reimburse the state’s legal costs and fees.
Rather than comply with Washington’s voter-approved law, Google announced a moratorium on political ads for Washington state and local elections. Ferguson never requested that Google stop selling political ads in Washington. Google’s voluntary policy was not required by the consent decree signed by the court when the case resolved.
Contrary to Google’s voluntary policy, Washington political ads continued to appear on the platform. Since Ferguson filed the first case against Google in June of 2018, 57 Washington candidates and political committees have reported 188 payments for ads on Google — a total of $461,334.
Google hosted these ads without maintaining the legally required information for those ads and without making that information available to the public in a timely manner, as required by law.
“I take repeat violations of our campaign finance laws very seriously,” Ferguson said. “Google is one of the largest corporations in the world, and should be able to figure out how to follow our campaign finance laws. 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.”
In September 2020, the PDC referred the case to Ferguson. Ferguson announced his decision to file the lawsuit in October 2020.
The recent lawsuit, filed in King County Superior Court, asserts that Google failed to maintain the information required by state law for hundreds of Washington political ads that Google hosted since Ferguson’s first lawsuit. Because of Google’s failure to properly manage Washington political advertising information, it is currently unknown how many total Washington political ads it provided since June 4, 2018, which includes those purchased by at least 57 campaigns or committees.
Since Ferguson’s first lawsuit, two Washingtonians — Eli Sanders and Tallman Trask — reported that Google had failed to promptly respond to their requests about Washington political ads, as the law requires.
Sanders requested information from Google about a Spokane public safety initiative. While Google acknowledged receipt of the request, it failed to timely provide Sanders with information about those ads.
Trask sought information about Google ads relating to Seattle City Council races and other 2019 elections in Washington. Almost two weeks later, Google provided Trask with some of the required information for the specific Seattle City Council ads he identified in his request. However, the company did not provide him with information for any other political ads related to 2019 elections in Washington, as he had requested.
Ferguson asserts that these failures to provide information to the public on time constitute additional violations of state campaign finance law.
Washington requires political ad transparency
The PDC adopted specific rules for digital political advertisers in November 2019. These rules carry the force of law.
Washington campaign finance law requires commercial advertisers like Google to maintain specific information about Washington political ads within 24 hours of the ad’s publication — and to promptly provide that information to members of the public when requested.
The information that Google and other commercial advertisers are required to maintain and make publicly available includes:
- The name of the candidate or measure supported or opposed;
- The dates the advertiser provided the service;
- The name and address of the person or committee who sponsored the advertising
- The name of the person or organization who purchased the ad (which can be the same as the sponsor, or a different organization, such as an advertising agency);
- The total cost of the advertising; and
- Method of payment used to purchase the ad.Ferguson’s lawsuit asserts Google violated this commercial advertiser law with regard to each Washington political ad it hosted since June 4, 2018, because it has not maintained the required records for any of those ads. It also violated the law by failing to timely respond to Sanders’ and Trask’s requests for this information for the Washington political ads they identified.
Washington campaign finance law allows the court to assess a civil penalty of up to $10,000 for each violation.
Assistant Attorneys General Todd Sipe and Paul Crisalli are handling the case for Washington.
Ferguson filed a similar campaign finance lawsuit against Facebook in April 2020. The lawsuit asserts that, similar to Google, Facebook repeatedly violated campaign finance laws since Ferguson’s first campaign finance lawsuit against Facebook in 2018.