Governing: Facebook's Brewing Legal Battle With States and Cities


In early December last year, a reporter for The Stranger walked into the Seattle offices of Facebook, printouts of the city code in hand, to ask for detailed information about online ad purchases for the city's 2017 elections. Two months later, the city is on the brink of fining Facebook for failing to turn over the requested information. It’s the first attempt by any state or locality to enforce its political advertising disclosure laws on a social media company. Facebook is facing a $5,000 penalty per ad.


“Part of the reason we haven’t seen anything like [the Seattle case] before is because digital political ads are a relatively new phenomenon,” says Brendan Fischer, director of Federal and FEC Reform at the Campaign Legal Center.Fischer points to the massive jumps in political ad spending in just the last few election cycles: from $22.3 million in 2008 to $159.8 million in 2012, all the way to $1.4 billion in 2016.


While most of the discussion about election meddling has focused on federal campaigns, Fischer says he wouldn’t rule out the possibility of foreign nationals trying to use their money to influence outcomes in state and local races. He points to a case in San Diego, where a wealthy Mexican businessman was illegally donating money to city candidates he thought might be friendly to his development schemes. Events like these, and the growing power and influence of digital political advertisements, mean that states and localities have a vested interest in increasing transparency, Fischer says. “Local governments are going to realize there are transparency gaps in the law,” he says. “There are many opportunities for state and local governments to step in here.”

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