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FCC To Rule On Online Political Advertisement Disclosure

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WASHINGTON -- Everyone is used to seeing a flood of political advertising, whether they are vicious attack ads or saccharine puff pieces, in the months before an election. Soon, the public may get a huge amount of information about the source and cost of all of those advertisements in a way that has never been done before.

The Federal Communications Commission held a meeting on Wednesday during which they promised to move forward in the process to enact rules governing the online disclosure of broadcasters' political files. The move comes as interest and concerns rise about the increase in political spending by outside groups, with the funding sources often remaining undisclosed, after the Supreme Court opened the door in January 2010 to unlimited independent spending by corporations and unions in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling.

The political files in question are documents retained by each individual broadcaster that contain information provided by campaigns and groups related to the request to run an advertisement. The files include the name of the campaign, candidate, or group, a general reason for the ad's broadcast, the time and placement of the ad, and the cost of the purchase. Political files are available to inspect in person at the office of each broadcaster, but not over the Internet.

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps explained the proposal before the commission in Wednesday's meeting. "It proposes that television broadcasters move their public files online, to a site hosted by the FCC, which I hope will be searchable and aggregative and therefore offer real opportunity for comparative analysis and wide public understanding," he said. "Without that kind of searchability, online disclosure would be small improvement over having the file kept in the broadcast station's basement."

The end result of the proposal will likely not be available until next spring, when it could then apply to the majority of the elections in the 2012 cycle.

The decision to move to rule-making on the disclosure provision drew praise from media watchdogs, campaign finance and transparency groups, and Capitol Hill.

"In an age of secretive political spending by unregulated outside groups like Super PACs, consumers deserve to know who is using the public airwaves, and for what purpose," Rep. Anna Esho (D-Calif.), a leader in efforts to enact disclosure for groups empowered by the conservative nonprofit Citizens United, said in a statement. "Larger issues of campaign finance disclosure remain unresolved by today's proposal, but putting this information online is an important first step."

Andrew Jay Schwartzman, the senior vice president and policy director of the Media Access Project, issued a statement saying, "Today's action makes useful information available, and makes it much more accessible to the public. Much more needs to be done, and the public is counting on the Chairman's assurances that the Commission will move quickly to complete its newly initiated proceedings."

Schwartzman continued, "We've asked that the information in the political file to be expanded to who actually wrote the check. ... There's [currently] no requirement to do due diligence and go ... and find out who wrote the check."

If the FCC were to require this level of disclosure, it would be the first successful effort to enact a disclosure rule for contributors to groups that run political advertisements and operate under the nonprofit tax code -- would would ordinarily exempt them from revealing funding sources.

Lisa Rosenberg, government affairs consultant with the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to government transparency, wrote in a blog post, "If robust disclosure rules are put in place before the 2012 elections get into full swing, it will be a huge victory for the public, who has a right to know who is paying for the avalanche of political ads that will blast from their televisions in the months ahead."

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