Google no longer accepting state, local election ads in Maryland as result of new law

Google stopped accepting state and local election ads in Maryland Friday as a result of a new law passed by the General Assembly that requires disclosure of who is paying for political advertising and how much is being spent.

Google spokeswoman Alex Krasov said the Silicon Valley company is unsure it can comply with the law’s regulations, which state officials are reviewing to forge into a national model acceptable to technology firms.

“Our systems are not currently built to collect and provide the information in the time frame required by Maryland’s new disclosure law,” Krasov said.

The legislation, which takes effect Sunday, is aimed at curbing some of the questionable practices employed in online advertising during the 2016 election.

An indictment returned by Special Counsel Robert Mueller outlined a scheme under which individuals linked to the Russian government conducted a covert ad campaign through social media without disclosing the source of funding.

Jared DeMarinis, the election board’s campaign finance director, said Google is the only online platform operator he is aware of that plans to stop running political ads in Maryland.

Online ads are playing an ever-growing role in U.S. political campaigns. They are especially useful for candidates in down-ballot races such as for state delegate, for whom the costs of television or radio can be prohibitive. The trade magazine AdAge calculated that from 2012 to 2016, spending on political digital ads increased 789 percent.

Google said it supports the intent of the law and wants there to be more transparency in political advertising. However, it said that until it knows how the law will be interpreted, it will have to turn away ads in state and local races in Maryland.

Ads for federal offices such as president, U.S. senator or representative will not be affected because they are regulated by the Federal Election Commission. Krasov said the company announced a new policy earlier this year dealing with disclosure of who is paying for ads in those races.

Google said it could return to the Maryland market if the State Board of Elections adopts regulations implementing the law that are compatible with the capabilities of the company’s systems.

“We’ve been working with the Board of Elections, and we’ll continue to engage with them,” Krasov said.

DeMarinis said he has been reaching out to a wide range of companies affected by the law and seeking their input on crafting the regulations. He said the rule-making process typically takes several months. Maryland, as one of the first states to adopt such a law, is trying to craft rules that can be a national model because companies “don’t want to have 50 different rules.”

The Online Electioneering and Transparency Act was sponsored by Del. Alonzo Washington, a Prince George’s County Democrat who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees election law.

The legislation passed nearly unanimously in the Senate, but most Republicans opposed it in the House of Delegates. Gov. Larry Hogan allowed it to become law without his signature despite expressing misgivings about its constitutionality. A group of media companies including The Baltimore Sun objected to a provision of the bill that would require them to publish a table of political ad purchases. They contend that requiring media outlets to publish any content violates the First Amendment.

The measure will also require that operators of online advertising platforms, such as Google, Twitter and Facebook, must keep records of who bought ads and how much they paid for them and make them available to the public within 48 hours of the purchase.

That requirement poses problems for Google because its “dynamic” pricing scheme can make it difficult to determine what the final price is until the end of a campaign that may last a week or longer.

The new law will also give the elections board authority to seek subpoenas to investigate how election campaigns and outside advocacy groups use social media to target voters.

Facebook initially opposed the bill but came around to supporting it after lawmakers amended it. A company spokesman, Andy Stone, said Facebook is prepared to comply with the law and has adopted additional transparency measures since the bill passed.

Twitter officials could not be reached for comment Friday.

Washington said the intent of the law was not to push companies such as Google out of the market. He said he hopes the board can craft rules that would allow online platforms to sell ads in Maryland. If not, he said he’d be willing to take a new look at the law next year when the legislature meets again.

“I’m sure the state Board of Elections will provide us with recommendations based on what some of these online platforms would face,” Washington said.

mdresser@baltsun.com

twitter.com/michaeltdresser

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