IPR Advocacy Leads to Improved and Comprehensive Online Public File Rules

IPR, on behalf of its clients Sunlight Foundation, Campaign Legal Center, and Common Cause, has been at the forefront of the fight to increase the political advertising transparency at television stations in light of their public interest obligations. This issue has been a priority of the clinic’s clients and of the clinic’s directors, Angela Campbell and Andy Schwartzman. After many years of advocacy, we have secured a major victory for political transparency: the FCC has finally required all “public inspection files” to be uploaded online for anyone to access.

The FCC, until very recently, required these stations to maintain physical “public inspection files” at their place of business. These files include many important documents, but most important for us and our clients is the political file. The political file is where stations must disclose to the public how they sell their advertising time for political messages, including ads by candidates themselves or outside groups. These files can be freely inspected by the public. In actuality, inspecting the physical files was difficult or even impossible. Beyond traveling to the station (which could be hundreds of miles away), visitors were often met with skeptical and difficult station employees, some of whom did not even know what the public inspection file was.

public filesThe FCC has been on a long and slow trajectory to require the public inspection files to be placed online. First, in 2012, the FCC cautiously began requiring a small portion of broadcasters to upload their public files in an FCC-hosted online database. At the time, only the top-four broadcasters (NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox) in the top 50 markets had to place their files online. In summer 2013, the FCC sought comment on how that process went. Even the National Association of Broadcasters said it was “uneventful.” IPR filed comments on behalf of its client at the time, the Public Interest Public Airwaves Coalition, supporting the transition. (PIPAC also encouraged the FCC to adopt a standardized form to improve the quality and usefulness of the data.) Receiving very little pushback, the FCC extended the online public file requirement to all broadcasters.

In summer 2014, IPR filed a petition for rulemaking, on behalf of its clients Sunlight Foundation, Campaign Legal Center, and Common Cause, asking the FCC to extend this no-brainer online public file requirement to cable and satellite providers. This extension was important in part because political ads are increasingly shown on cable and satellite stations, yet escape public review because of their antiquated, paper-only public file rules. After putting our petition out for public comment in late 2014, the FCC adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that not only proposed extending the online requirement to cable and satellite providers but also to radio stations, in part because they too run political ads. Again, we filed comments in support of the extension, including to all radio stations.

We are pleased that the FCC recently adopted an Order extending the online filing requirements to cable and satellite providers and radio stations. The Order was published in the Federal Register on February 29, 2016; many of the requirements went into effect on that date.

While we gained a victory here, our political advertising fight is not over. We continue to seek changes at the FCC in three primary areas: (1) improving the quality and usefulness of the data in the online public files by encouraging the FCC to adopt a standardized form; (2) improving the adequacy of the content uploaded to the online public file; and (3) improving on-air disclosure of the “true identity” of a sponsoring Super PAC. We will continue the fight for these changes.

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