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Seattle says Facebook is violating city campaign finance law

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Seattle’s election authority said on Monday that Facebook Inc is in violation of a city law that requires disclosure of who buys election ads, the first attempt of its kind to regulate U.S. political ads on the internet.

Facebook must disclose details about spending in last year’s Seattle city elections or face penalties, Wayne Barnett, executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, said in a statement.

The penalties could be up to $5,000 per advertising buy, Barnett said, adding that he would discuss next steps this week with Seattle’s city attorney.

It was not immediately clear how Facebook would respond if penalized. Facebook said in a statement it had sent the commission some data.

“Facebook is a strong supporter of transparency in political advertising. In response to a request from the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission we were able to provide relevant information,” said Will Castleberry, a Facebook vice president.

Barnett said Facebook’s response “doesn’t come close to meeting their public obligation.” The company provided partial spending numbers, but not copies of ads or data about whom they targeted.

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The unregulated nature of U.S. online political ads drew attention last year after Facebook said Russians using fake names bought ads on the social network to try to sway voters ahead of the 2016 presidential election. Moscow denies trying to meddle in the election.

Buying online election ads requires little more than a credit card. Federal law does not currently force online ad sellers such as Facebook or Alphabet Inc’s Google and YouTube to disclose the identity of the buyers.

Legislation is pending to extend federal rules governing political advertising on television and radio to also cover internet ads, and tech firms have announced plans to voluntarily disclose some data.

Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said in September that his company would “create a new standard for transparency in online political ads.”

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At the center of the Seattle dispute is a 1977 law that requires companies that sell election advertising, such as radio stations, to maintain public books showing the names of who bought ads, the payments and the “exact nature and extent of the advertising services rendered.”

The law went unenforced against tech companies until a local newspaper, The Stranger, published a story in December in the wake of the Russia allegations asking why.

Seattle sent letters to Facebook and Google asking them to provide data. The sides have been in talks, and last month Facebook employees met in person with commission staff.

“We gave Facebook ample time to comply with the law,” Barnett said.

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Google has asked for more time to comply, and that request is pending, Barnett said.

Legal experts said they were unaware of any similar regulation attempts by other U.S. localities or states.

“Given the negative publicity around Facebook’s failure to provide adequate transparency in the 2016 elections, I would be surprised if they tried to challenge this law,” said Brendan Fischer of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit that favors campaign finance regulation.

(Reporting by David Ingram; Editing by Leslie Adler and James Dalgleish)

Report typos and corrections to [email protected].
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Commentary

Why do conservatives hate Oberlin College so much?

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When I was an undergraduate at Oberlin in the mid-Aughts, there was a student in my class year who was obsessed with 19th-century British Royal Naval culture. Every Friday evening, he would host a sing-along in a dorm lounge, for which he would bring xeroxes of historical sea shanty lyrics and pass them around so that we could sing along, waving our glasses of “grog.” This was a semi-established event — he had distributed flyers around campus advertising the weekly British Royal Naval sea-shanty singalong and grog-drinking event, which would extend late into the night. Though he was not a resident of the dorm where it took place, he was welcomed into the lounge by its members, and became a fixture of sorts.Like many well-endowed liberal arts schools in rural areas, Oberlin College functions as a sort of de facto social welfare state, and is designed to encourage and cultivate one’s passions, even if they are not strictly academic. Thus, after writing up a proposal for the student-run activities board, the same student, the British Royal Navy culture guy, was able to plan, organize and execute a ticketed Royal Naval Ball, held in the atrium of the science center. The event featured 20 dishes of authentic British era-appropriate cuisine, cooked by student chefs, several courses of wine and port, and a violinist present to play period-specific music. The whole affair culminated with a traditional, British partner line dance — its sole inauthenticity the fact that we didn’t pay attention to our dance partners’ genders the way the Brits would have.
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2020 Election

Here are 5 reasons why 2020’s down-ballot races could reshape America’s future

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The political press always tends to focus mostly on the marquee race for the White House but that's especially true this cycle, as Donald Trump runs for a second term. He demands attention and his antics enrage his opponents and delight his supporters in equal measure.

But national reporters risk missing the big picture by centering so much of their reporting at the top when many of the most important political battles in 2020 will take place further down the ballot.

Trump is catnip for reporters and their editors, but the dearth of coverage of downballot races didn't begin with his election. As the news media in general faces structural changes—with print circulation declining and much of their work moving into digital spaces that are more difficult to monetize--publishers have cut back on reporters assigned to the state and local government beat. Nevertheless, Trump has arguably worsened the trend by getting so much airtime— one estimate suggested that over the past four years, Trump has taken up, on average, 15 percent of the entire daily news cycle on the three leading cable networks, nearly three times what Obama did.

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2020 Election

WATCH: Katie Porter explains to constituents why her conscience demands support for Trump impeachment inquiry

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Congresswoman Katie Porter, in a video posted on social media Monday night, shared with residents of her purple California district why she is joining dozens of other Democrats who support launching an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump.

"I didn't come to Congress to impeach the president," said the first-term representative. "But when faced with a crisis of this magnitude, I cannot with a clean conscience ignore my duty to defend the Constitution. I can't claim to be committed to rooting out corruption and putting people over politics and then not apply those same principles and standards in all of the work I do."

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