FCC to vote on ad disclosure rules before the Iowa caucuses

The people and groups paying for political ads on cable and satellite television will likely soon be searchable in a central online database maintained by the Federal Communications Commission. 

The FCC is slated to vote this month on rules that would require cable and satellite TV operators to post information online about advertising spending and who is behind the ads. The rules will also extend to broadcast and satellite radio. 

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The companies already maintain these records; the new rules would only require that the information be posted in a central online database. 

Some companies like Time Warner Cable have already voluntarily started posting the information online. 

The rule would bring those industries in line with broadcast TV stations. A 2012 rule forced television broadcasters to post information on an online FCC database detailing the size of ad buys and the name of the person, campaign or group who sponsored it. 

Advocates have pressed to expand the rule, saying the broadcast television disclosures opened the public’s eyes to the amount of money being spent and who is spending it. 

“[The new rules] would facilitate public access to disclosure records for all these media and allow the public to view and analyze political advertising expenditures more easily in each market as well as nationwide,” the FCC wrote in proposed rules adopted in late 2014. 

When the expanded rules were first proposed, FCC officials predicted they would be in place before the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1. Millions have already been spent this cycle in the early presidential nominating states. 

The commission will vote Feb. 28; the proposed rules recommended that the requirement take effect “immediately absent unusual circumstances.”

Transparency groups like the Sunlight Foundation have made use of the current broadcast database, but they have complained about the hard-to-read format in which the information is posted and about some stations that have failed to fully comply with the requirements. 

Transparency advocates have pressed the FCC to go further to tackle ad disclosures. But FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has said the commission does not have an appetite for expanded rules at the moment. 

Some advocates have unsuccessfully pushed the agency to require TV and radio ads to disclose the names of large individual donors who are responsible for the ads.