SPOKANE, Wash. — Editor's Note: An earlier version of this report stated that targeted digital ads are banned in Washington state. The Washington PDC has since clarified that this is not a state election rule, but instead a rule imposed by Google in its terms of service. The article has been updated to reflect this.
A report by Seattle-based alternative newspaper The Stranger says that a group in support of the public safety levy passed in Spokane's February special elections used ads against Google's terms of service to help get the levy passed.
The Stranger reported that the group "Yes for Public Safety" paid Google $4,665 for political ads to support the campaign to get Proposition No. 1, which passed with 64 percent of the vote.
The proposition provides funds for additional firefighting and crime resources in the city of Spokane.
The ads, according to the report, were targeted at internet users over 45 and users with an age that couldn't be determined. The group purchased 1.1 million "impressions," or appearances for the ad, according to the report. But, Google data revealed to Washington state investigators shows that ads for the proposition were viewed over 6.2 million times by some estimates.
Google claims they have stopped selling ads through their ad service for these elections, and said in response to a Washington Public Disclosure Commission complaint that they use defenses such as keyword filters and content blockers to try to prevent target ads from appearing.
"Google has deployed robust technological measures to support it, including content blocks and keyword filters," Google said in its response.
A reporter for the Stranger requested information from Google about the ads. According to Washington law, any company that sells these ads must be able to provide information within 24 hours of the ad's first appearance to anyone from the public. Information that must be provided under this law includes who was targeted and how many of the ads they sold, and must be provided within 24 hours of the request.
According to a PDC complaint filed by the reporter, Google didn't email back for two days, at which point they said they were "looking into it."
Google responded to the complaint by claiming that, due to the fact that they don't offer these ads and try to prevent anyone from using their ad service in a way that violates the Washington law, that they aren't subjected to the rule requiring them to provide such information in 24 hours.
"Google does not accept, and in fact actively rejects, political advertising targeting Washington state and local elections. Accordingly, [the law] does not apply," Google claimed in its response.
In fact, Google claims that it was unaware of the ads bought by "Yes for Public Safety" until the Stranger's reporter sent them a request to view the information related to the ads.
"It is still possible for third parties to violate Google's policies and circumvent its technological measures. That appears to have been what happened with the 'Yes for Public Safety' ad, unbeknownst to Google," they said in the response. "And immediately upon hearing from Mr. Sanders about the ad, the ad was removed and the advertiser was notified of the policy violation."
However, the reporter didn't send his request until March, well after the election was over.
The Washington PDC has yet to make a final ruling on the complaint as of September 4.
The following is a report on how nearly $250,000 has already been spent on the 2019 Spokane City Council President race.