FCC votes to expand its database on political advertising

FCC, Net Neutrality
Getty Images
 
The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday voted to make more information about political ads available online. 
 
Cable TV, satellite and radio stations will all soon have to start posting information about the political campaigns and outside groups buying advertising on their platforms. This will bring those media in line with requirements for TV broadcasters, who were the first to be required to maintain those records in an FCC database back in 2012. 
 
ADVERTISEMENT
Companies have long been forced to maintain those physical records at their headquarters. But FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel called the old requirements “retrograde.”

“This kind of requirement may have made sense in the Mad Men era, but it makes no sense in the digital age,” she said. 

All five commissioners approved the vote, with Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai concurring in part.

The order is aimed at giving journalists and transparency groups easier access to the records, which include information about who purchased the advertising and how much they spent. The records are part of the broader public file that companies must maintain.

The requirement will begin after the Office of Management and Budget signs off on the rules, with exceptions for operators with a small number of providers. Only new files will have to be posted. The FCC said the first disclosures are expected to go up in three to six months.

Small broadcast radio stations will have a two-year window before the rules apply to them. Cable companies with fewer than 1,000 subscribers will be exempt, while requirements for operators with between 1,000 and 5,000 subscribers will also be delayed for two years.  

Transparency groups did not get everything they wanted. They unsuccessfully pressed the FCC to require that the records be machine readable, so that large-scale data analysis could be simplified. 

They have complained about the monumental undertaking to sort through the already available broadcast TV records by hand.  

Broadcast television makes up the bulk of political campaign advertising, but cable and satellite TV buys have become more popular in recent cycles because of the level of targeting it allows. 

Transparency groups have said disclosures for radio will also be important because that has historically been a place for more of the unsavory political campaign tactics. 

The vote comes just days before the Iowa caucuses, the first presidential nominating contest. Democrats and outside groups have pressed the FCC to take on an even greater role in campaign advertising disclosures, but FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has not expressed an appetite to dive into that fight. 

More than 160 House Democrats earlier this month sent him a letter pressing the FCC to draft rules that would require ads to disclose the individual donors behind the sometimes opaque groups that purchase the ad time. 

— updated 3:05 p.m.