Judge ruled Meta intentionally violated Washington’s decades-old campaign finance law more than 800 times
OLYMPIA — Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced today he has filed a motion seeking the maximum penalty of $24.6 million against Facebook’s parent company, Meta, over its 822 intentional violations of Washington’s campaign finance transparency law.
On Oct. 6, King County Superior Court Judge Douglass North ruled that Meta violated Washington law 822 times, and that its violations were intentional. Because the violations were intentional, it allows the court to triple the penalty, for a maximum of $30,000 per violation. By law, campaign finance penalties go to the State Public Disclosure Transparency Account.
At a Sept. 2 hearing, Judge North rejected assertions by Meta that complying with the law was too burdensome, saying: “The only … information that has to be made available is the information that Meta is already collecting. They necessarily collect it in order to be able to run the ads that they’re running. So all they have to do in order to display it is essentially press a button.”
“We have penalties for a reason,” Ferguson said. “Facebook is a repeat, intentional violator of the law. It’s a sophisticated company. Instead of accepting responsibility and apologizing for its conduct, Facebook went to court to gut our campaign finance law in order to avoid accountability. If this case doesn’t warrant a maximum penalty, what does?”
This law requires campaign advertisers, including entities such as Meta that host political ads, to make information about Washington political ads that run on their platforms available for public inspection in a timely manner. The state asserted that Meta violated the law repeatedly since December 2018 and committed hundreds of violations.
The judge concluded that Meta repeatedly and intentionally violated the law and must pay penalties. The exact amount of penalties will be determined at a later date. Under state law, the court can assess a civil penalty of up to $10,000 per violation. In addition, because Meta’s violations are found to have been intentional, the court may triple the amount of the judgment as punitive damages. By law, campaign finance penalties go to the State Public Disclosure Transparency Account.
The Attorney General’s campaign finance enforcement has in recent years resulted in two other findings of intentional violations: One against the Consumer Brands Association, formerly known as the Grocery Manufacturers Association, totaling $9 million, the other against initiative promoter Tim Eyman for $2.6 million.
Background of the case
Following the Sept. 2 hearing, Judge North granted Washington’s motion for summary judgment, resolving the case without trial. Judge North also denied Meta’s motion for summary judgment, which asked the court to strike down a key provision of Washington’s decades-old, best-in-the-nation law. Meta tried to strike down the law despite repeatedly stating publicly that it is committed to “providing transparency during elections.”
The summary judgment motions were filed as part of Ferguson’s 2020 lawsuit against Meta — the tech company that owns Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms — for their repeated violations of state campaign finance law. The lawsuit asserts that Meta, then known only as Facebook, intentionally violated the state’s campaign finance disclosure law, which was first adopted by initiative in 1972, and the Legislature has strengthened the law since.
This law requires commercial advertisers, like Meta and any other company that runs campaign ads in Washington, to maintain records on campaign ads and make them available to the public. This includes information related to the cost of the ad, the sponsor of the ad, as well as targeting and reach information.
Meta places identified Washington political ads and some information about them in an online, publicly available Ad Library. However, the Ad Library does not include all the information that Washington law requires advertisers to maintain and make available to the public about political ads in the state.
The Attorney General’s Office has sued Meta twice for failure to produce campaign advertising records. The first lawsuit was filed in 2018, and resulted in a consent decree that required Meta to pay $238,000 and included Meta’s commitment to transparency in campaign finance and political advertising. However, Meta continued to run Washington political ads without maintaining the required information — prompting Ferguson to sue again in 2020.
Assistant Attorneys General Todd Sipe, Elana Matt, Paul Crisalli, Cristina Sepe and Jeff Grant are handling the case against Meta.
Washington’s Attorney General serves the people and the state of Washington. As the state’s largest law firm, the Attorney General’s Office provides legal representation to every state agency, board, and commission in Washington. Additionally, the Office serves the people directly by enforcing consumer protection, civil rights, and environmental protection laws. The Office also prosecutes elder abuse, Medicaid fraud, and handles sexually violent predator cases in 38 of Washington’s 39 counties. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.
Brionna Aho, Communications Director, (360) 753-2727; Brionna.email@example.com
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