A former member of the Federal Election Commission wants the FEC to investigate likely illegal Facebook contributions to a presidential campaign.
The Barack Obama campaign.
Facebook is facing turbulence with allegations that a political advisory company obtained access to the personal information of some 50 million users and then sold information to the Donald Trump campaign in 2016.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has done a round of apologies on television and has agreed to testify before Congress. His company stock is down double-digit percentages and many members are canceling.
Now Hans von Spakovsky, an expert on civil rights, civil justice, the First Amendment, immigration, the rule of law and government reform, and manager of the Heritage Foundation’s Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies Election Law Reform Initiative, says the investigation is needed.
In a commentary for Fox News, he addressed the controversy over the acquisition by the consulting firm Cambridge Analytica of personal data from more than 50 million Facebook users without their knowledge. The information was used to target ads to individuals to help elect Donald Trump in 2016.
But von Spakovsky contends a more serious misuse of Facebook data, which is getting far less attention, was Facebook’s provision of personal information to the re-election campaign of President Obama.
“If true, such action by Facebook may constitute a major violation of federal campaign finance law as an illegal corporate campaign contribution. The matter should be investigated by the Federal Election Commission – an agency I am quite familiar with, because I served as one of its commissioners from 2006 to 2007,” he said.
“A federal law bans corporations from making ‘direct or indirect’ contributions to federal candidates. That ban extends beyond cash contributions to ‘any services, or anything of value.’ In other words, corporations cannot provide federal candidates with free services of any kind. Under the Federal Election Commission’s regulations, ‘anything of value’ includes any ‘in-kind contribution.'”
Contributions such as free office space are not allowed, he noted.
He explained that Carol Davidsen, the former media director for Obama for America, confessed Facebook gave the 2012 Obama campaign “direct access to the personal data of Facebook users in violation of its internal rules, making a special exception for the campaign.”
On Twitter, she admitted, Facebook “came to office in the days following election recruiting & were very candid that they allowed us to do things they wouldn’t have allowed someone else to do because they were on our side.”
That, von Spakovsky explained, is the type of detail that professional direct mail marketers, such as Richard Viguerie, provide.
“He provides information to campaigns looking for votes and money, and to nonprofit and advocacy organizations raising funds,” von Spakovsky wrote. But “political campaigns must pay for these services. Under a Federal Election Commission regulation, giving a mailing list or something similar to a campaign is considered an ‘in-kind contribution.'”
Von Spakovsky said that if Facebook “gave the Obama campaign free access to this type of data when it normally does not do so for other entities – or usually charges for such access – then Facebook would appear to have violated the federal ban on in-kind contributions by a corporation.”
“And the Obama campaign may have violated the law by accepting such a corporate contribution.”
The Trump campaign doesn’t face the same problem, he explained, because it paid Cambridge Analytica for its services.
It’s an open question, however, whether the Obama campaign stepped outside the law.
“It should be investigated by the Federal Election Commission and potentially the U.S. Department of Justice,” he wrote.