Ahead of 2012’s election year, a federal regulatory agency is proposing a rule that could reveal more information about the groups that bankroll political ads.
The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to seek public comments on rules that would require television broadcasters to put their files online, including information about political spots.
Watchdog groups hope the rules will shed light on the big money behind political ad campaigns by making the data more accessible.
"In the 21st century, the notion that you have to walk into an office and paw your way though paper files is ridiculous," said Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan advocacy group.
The move also has support from at least one lawmaker on 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 Eshoo (D-Calif.) said in reaction to the FCC's vote. "Larger issues of campaign finance disclosure remain unresolved by today’s proposal, but putting this information online is an important first step.”
The public owns the airwaves that television broadcasters use, and the government imposes a variety of requirements on stations to serve the public interest. Stations are prohibited, for example, from charging a higher rate for airtime to one campaign over another.
But McGehee said there is not enough oversight to ensure that stations are complying with those requirements. Disclosing advertising information online could help ensure the television stations are living up to their end of the bargain, she said.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski echoed that point in a statement.
"Making this information easily accessible will let the public see the large number of broadcasters that are doing a strong job of meeting their public interest obligations, and also those that are not," he said.
The National Association of Broadcasters has opposed similar efforts in the past to require online disclosures, arguing they are too burdensome for local television stations. Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the NAB, said his organization is reviewing the FCC's most recent proposal.
Under the rules, the FCC would compile the broadcaster disclosures on its own website.
"With this item, we propose to move the public file from paper to the Internet, and to host this information at the Commission so there’s efficient public access, another important step in the Commission’s efforts to ensure effective public access to information," Genachowski said.
Lisa Rosenberg, government affairs consultant for The Sunlight Foundation, said she hopes the FCC will create "a robust and searchable database that's in place before the 2012 race is in full swing."
She said it is important that the FCC impose tough disclosure requirements in light of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision that struck down laws restricting corporate political spending, and the failure of Congress to approve the Disclose Act, which would have required detailed reports on political activities.
Opponents of the Disclose Act argued that revealing information about political supporters would violate their free speech rights.
McGehee said the proposed rules might do little to reveal who is actually behind outside ads, since the name of the sponsoring group can hide its supporters.
"Seeing 'this ad was paid for by Americans Who Love America' is not very informative," McGehee said.