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Seattle wants to know who paid for Facebook political ads

(AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

Once again, tech companies are finding themselves in a gray area of regulation. This time, Seattle is pushing Facebook to reveal who paid for political ads during 2016 campaigns.

“Seattle’s law requires that the media keep books and records showing who paid for ads running on their radio and TV stations…” Former Washington Attorney General Rob KcKenna told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross. “… you can see who paid for the ads they’ve been seeing and hearing.”

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Seattle’s election law dates back to 1977, long before the internet and online advertising was a daily fact of life. But now, Seattle’s Ethic’s and Elections Commission is demanding Facebook provide similar information that other media is required to do. It wants Facebook to document and reveal who pays for political ads. Facebook could face fines of up to $5,000 for each advertisement. Reuters notes that it’s the first such attempt to regulate political ads on social media.

Facebook has also recently come under scrutiny for political ads purchased by Russian agents during the 2016 campaign. The problem with Seattle’s current request is that it’s in that gray area of regulation. Where does a social media company like Facebook fall when it comes to political advertising?

“It’s never been thought that (this law) applies to online advertising,” McKenna said. “That’s not really surprising, even though online advertising has been around for a while and use of online ads has been growing dramatically by political campaigns … it’s not surprising no one ever thought of it before because online advertising has been treated very differently than conventional newspaper, radio, and TV advertising.”

Political ads on Facebook

While TV and radio ads fall under the purview of the FCC, the internet does not. Beyond that, there is the Communications Decency Act, McKenna notes, which states websites cannot be held liable for advertising content on their pages. This is because online advertising is often provided by third parties and not the websites themselves. Facebook could be different, however, in that people directly place the ads onto the social media site.

McKenna knows people who work for Facebook. He’s actually signed the wall at the company. So he reached out to find out what they plan to do about challenges like Seattle’s.

“One thing they told me is that they are looking beyond what they legally have to do, to what they think they should do,” McKenna said. “They predict that if it’s not them, some other company that hosts online political advertising will argue that federal law shields them from having to disclose who is paying for the ads.”

“But they’re not saying they are going to do that; they are looking at their options beyond the legal requirements,” he said. “I think that is the right position for them to take. Even though I wouldn’t be surprised if they immediately said ‘Hey, Communications Decency Act; you cannot touch us; we are not regulated by the FCC’ and so forth.”

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McKenna doesn’t know Facebook’s official plan, but he said that the company could be considering making political advertising more transparent.

“The best solution is sunshine,” he said. “As Slade Gorton once said to me, ‘Money in politics is like water on a sidewalk. It always finds the cracks.’”

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