The decision by Google to stop taking political ads in Washington state elections – at least until it can find ways to comply with longstanding state disclosure law – looks like a smart business decision. But the digital giant's policy change, which it announced Thursday, was long overdue.
The decision comes on the heels of lawsuits filed on June 4 by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson against the online goliaths.
One suit targeted Google and another targeted Facebook, each alleging that the companies failed since 2013 to make public their records of political ad spending on state and local races in which they ran the ads.
Requirements that commercial advertisers make political-ad purchase information available to the public were on the books in this state decades ago after voters approved Initiative 276’s sweeping disclosure reforms in 1972.
This law is followed routinely by television and other media that run political ads, and it is helpful in enforcing rules that require election ads to carry the names of sponsors and their top contributors.
But it took requests by editor Eli Sanders of The Stranger newspaper in Seattle – to examine Facebook and Google ad accounts in Seattle races last year – to raise the issue for regulators.
The AG's lawsuits put these deep-pocketed digital ad firms on notice that the state intends to enforce its campaign laws.
It’s easy to think that the case of the state's campaign-finance lawsuit against the national Grocery Manufacturers Association could have encouraged Google’s new thinking.
The GMA lawsuit – based on an allegation of intentionally concealing donors to a campaign against labeling genetically modified foods in 2013 – led to record fines of $18 million and court or legal costs of $1.1 million more against the association. The case is now on appeal.
The state Public Disclosure Commission regulates in-state campaign finances, and spokeswoman Kim Bradford said this week that the agency all along believed digital ad companies had to comply with the commercial advertising rules. But passage of a sweeping reform bill this year, which included clearer language on the duties of digital firms, should remove any question.
Bradford said the disclosure by digital ad sellers had not yet produced a need for the PDC to inspect either Google or Facebook’s accounts in past elections. Ultimately an editor at The Stranger newspaper in Seattle sought to inspect the books at the companies, which elevated the issue.
We hope other digital advertising outlets follow suit as the role of online ads grow in our elections.
Cheating in elections in Washington is always wrong.
But companies that earn massive profits from online advertising can easily afford to become law-abiding corporate citizens that are completely transparent in elections advertising.