Gold standard’ or constitutionally unconstitutional? Facebook as well as Wash. the state AG dispute over laws governing the disclosure of political advertisements

Facebook the parent firm Meta along with Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson agree on this state’s legislation on disclosure of advertising for campaigns is unique.

It’s a matter of whether that’s bad or good — and, more important, is it legal?

It’s a subject of major disagreement between the two sides as they are preparing for a crucial trial scheduled for next month’s King County Superior Court in Seattle. It’s expected to be a crucial moment in a lengthy dispute about the public disclosure requirements in the state for tech companies that offer campaign advertisements.

Meta seeks summary judgement to its advantage in the state’s lawsuit filed in 2020.

The lawsuit calls Washington as an “outlier,” Meta asserts that the state’s disclosure law is in violation of the First Amendment by unfairly targeting political speech and by imposing long deadlines for releasing information that Meta believes are excessive levels of information to individuals who seek information on the campaign’s ads.

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“Holding that Washington’s sweeping disclosure law is in violation of the Constitution this way would not affect other laws on disclosure, be it in Washington or anywhere else,” Meta said in a motion filed on 15 July. “It will simply bring Washington in line with other 49 states that also impose disclosure rules that do not affect the ability to shut off all channels of essential political discourse.”

Meta reports that Facebook has shut down the service of ads for advertising campaigns within the State of Texas of California after concluding that it would not be able to fairly be in compliance with the law.

Attorney general has responded to the court filing on Tuesday declaring that Meta is instead “made an enterprise decision of not making the necessary information accessible despite already having the information” through its advertising platform.

“There is no legal right to conceal information related to the expenditures for election ads simply because a business would prefer not to disclose the information,” the AG’s filing stated. “Meta’s unilateral decision was a deliberate business decision and not a necessity and it demonstrates Meta’s stated commitment to transparency in the election is according to Meta’s own terms and only when transparency is in line with it.”

In an announcement the AG’s office stated that Washington boasts one of the “gold-standard legislation” across the nation, citing the state’s highest ranking in terms of campaign finance law by the non-profit organization Coalition for Integrity.

“This law serves the critically important function of informing the public of the efforts in order to affect Washington Elections,” the AG’s filing states. “That goal has never been more vital than now in the current climate, when foreign actors and other groups aggressively propagate false information about elections and misinformation, which includes Facebook. In fact, Meta itself has publicly declared the importance of transparency in elections and has apologized for its role in interference with elections.”

The guidelines are set into Washington Administrative Code 390-18-050 which includes two days for responding electronically to requests. Giving details, like the address and name of the individuals who pay for the advertisements and the price of the advertisement, the payment method as well as other details. The requirements apply to traditional broadcast, print and digital advertisements.

The law also contains this specific requirement for digital platforms.

Meta also cited similar decision-making from other tech platforms to not serve political advertisements for Washington state elections as additional proof of its claim.

“When it becomes burdensome to host a certain kind speech than another, the sensible answer is to cease hosting the event,” its filing said. “That doesn’t even pose any speculation. In the face of having to follow the law on disclosure should they continue hosting Washington political advertisements, Meta, Google, Yahoo and Choozle all agreed that hosting the most important political messages isn’t worth it.”

This is the most recent lawsuit brought in the name of Washington State against the company in relation to the issue. Facebook was accused of being sued by the state, and in 2018 came to an agreement in which it agreed to pay a fine of $238,000. Washington also settled another lawsuit against Google on the same matter for more than $423,000 in the year prior.

The lawsuit against Meta that was filed in April of 2020, states that the company has continued to permit political ads within the state after having promised to end the practice.

The hearing for Meta/Facebook’s motion for summary judgement is scheduled for September. 2 in front of King County Superior Court Judge Douglass A. North.

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