FCC votes to make broadcasters’ political ad info available online

Josh Peterson Tech Editor
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The Federal Communications Commission voted Friday to require broadcasters to make information about political ad buying available online to the public.

The 2-1 vote is a change to a 2007 opinion of the commission, which exempted the political information in the broadcasters’ public files from being disclosed online. In 2002, Congress first mandated that the FCC make the political files of broadcasters available for public inspection, which made the information available to the public in file cabinets.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski contended that the rule change to make broadcasters post the information online —- initiated by a petition from Media Access Project, the now-defunct progressive media advocacy organization and long-time player in the world of Washington media and tech policy — was a “common sense” move in the direction of transparency.

“The question in front of us is whether, in the 21st Century, ‘available for public inspection’ means stuck in office filing cabinets, or available online,” said Genachowski in his written statement on the vote.

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn — who voted with the majority  — maintained that “the ability to use” the data was sufficient reason to make the files available online.

“The point isn’t so much what the use of the information from an online public file will be, but simply the ability to use it,” said Clyburn in her written statement on the ruling.

“The relevant governing statute uses the words ‘convenience’ and ‘necessity’ in discussing the public interest aspects of renewals of broadcast licenses, and our actions via this rulemaking speak to such principles,” she said. (RELATED: More on the FCC)

FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, who partially agreed with his colleagues, wrote in his statement that he saw no evidence that the data which supported the 2007 vote by the commission had changed to warrant the new decision. He disagreed that it was necessary for broadcasters to make available their sensitive pricing information, contending that it would place broadcasters at a competitive disadvantage against other advertising platforms.

Broadcasters are worried that advertisers would choose other advertising platforms to avoid any potential blowback they might incur due to their associations with political campaigns, therefore losing revenue from advertising dollars.

“If the concern is to know where campaign money is going, the public interest might be better served if Congress were to focus its scrutiny on the spenders of campaign dollars rather than just one of many, many, many recipients,” said McDowell.

“Today’s rule applies only to TV broadcasters, yet campaign money flows to radio, cable TV, satellite radio and TV, newspapers, direct mail, outdoor ads and the Internet, not to mention companies that offer other ways to reach voters.”

“What the government has created is a regime of disparate treatment. Congress should fix what the FCC won’t or can’t,” he added.

McDowell also argued that the cost to maintain such a database is currently unknown.

McDowell’s opinion was echoed by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization that supports the interests of the television and radio industries. The organization “respectfully disagreed” with the FCC’s decision.

“By forcing broadcasters to be the only medium to disclose on the Internet our political advertising rates, the FCC jeopardizes the competitive standing of stations that provide local news, entertainment, sports and life-saving weather information free of charge to tens of millions of Americans daily,” said NAB Executive Vice President of Communications Dennis Wharton in a statement.

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