The public recently won a major transparency victory when, as of July 1, 2014, after years of public pressure, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began requiring that all broadcast television stations post their political files online. These files contain information about who buys political ads at a station, how much they cost and the issue or candidate at the center of the ad.
It’s time for the FCC to extend online disclosure to cable, radio and satellite companies. The FCC wisely took the first step last week by asking for comments from the public on the matter. (And this action came quickly after the Sunlight Foundation, Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause and Georgetown Law’s Institute for Public Representation filed a petition with the FCC to require such disclosure from cable and satellite companies, available as PDF here.) While cable stations are required to keep the same files of the same information and make it available to the public, as of now only Time Warner Cable posts its file online. Online access to this information is essential for transparency in our elections and democracy.
Political files are useful in tracking money spent on our elections, and perhaps more importantly, they’re one of the only ways to track dark money spending. Dark money is money contributed, often in the form of political ads, by groups that don’t have to report their activities to the Federal Election Commission. Dark money groups spent more than $300 million in the 2012 election and so far have spent upwards of $40 million so far (that we can track) in the 2014 midterms. Access to the ad-buy contracts and information about the ads themselves has enabled journalists to inform people about who tries to influence their vote.
The FCC, however, excluded cable, radio and satellite providers from the rules requiring television broadcasters to put their files online. In 2014, experts predict that cable and satellite companies will rake in between $680 million and $800 million from political ad buys, with radio not far behind. And since political dark money nonprofits are spending the bulk of that amount with the intent to influence voters and the public, it’s imperative the FCC act so the public can know who’s behind the ads.
Broadcasters, cable, radio and satellite companies have been required for years to keep a political file. In 2012, the FCC tested online disclosure by implementing new rules for the top four broadcast TV stations in the top 50 markets to post their files online. Before that, all files were kept locked away in paper filing cabinets. And while they were considered “publicly available,” if reporters or members of the community wanted to see a broadcaster’s file, they had to make the trip to the station, sometimes hundreds of miles away, during regular business hours and request them. Copies of the files often incurred a copy/printing fee, which wasn’t standardized from station to station. It would take an intrepid voter to demand this information.
To be sure, the FCC’s requirements for online disclosure are an improvement. Expanding the mandate for cable, radio and satellite companies will be a victory, albeit long overdue, for transparency, but we’re still missing vital pieces to puzzle. The broadcasters’ online files, posted centrally at the FCC’s website, are mostly an assortment of non-machine-readable PDF files which makes it nearly impossible to extract the data from them. Because of this, the data is neither searchable nor sortable, and it’s up to those who want to use it to process it by hand. Even calculating how much one group spent on ads is extremely cumbersome. Considering just how many broadcast stations there are, this again, is nearly impossible.
It’s time for the FCC to not only expand disclosure rules, but to modernize them, as well. As we approach the 2014 midterm elections and the 2016 presidential election, the deluge of political ads is only beginning. And if 2012 was any indication, political ad transparency is essential to understanding the true picture of influence on our elections.
The Sunlight Foundation is a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for open government globally and uses technology to make government more accountable to all.