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OMB clears way for FCC to put political ads online

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Pushing back against the nation's broadcasters, the White House Office of Management and Budget has approved a rule requiring television stations in the nation's top markets to put information about political ad buys online.

The Federal Communications Commission had already passed the rule but the OMB had to certify that it does not violate government rules that call for minimizing paperwork. That's exactly what the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) unsuccessfully argued that it does.

That could mean that commercial time purchased on local broadcast stations by candidates and as well as by outside groups trying to influence this year's election could soon be widely available to the public free of charge for the first time. Currently the stations are required to keep the information on site but not online. Citizens and journalists who want to access the information have to spend hours and resources to photocopy the information, as student journalists at Kent State have documented. And many stations charge for copies. A Sunlight Foundation reporter recently lugged a portable scanner to Washington, D.C.-area stations after one attempted to charge him 50 cents per page to copy voluminous files.

Numerous outside groups have sprung up this year to underwrite multi-million-dollar ad campaigns supporting or opposing candidates in the 2012 election. The commercial shown above is by Restore Our Future, a super PAC supporting GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, that reportedly is launching a $7 million ad buy this month.

The OMB informed the FCC of the approval at the end of last week but the decision has not yet been published in the Federal Register. That's important because the rule will not come into effect until 30 days after it is published. It's unclear when that will be. The FCC is not commenting publicly before the rule is published.

Once the regulation comes into effect, stations would start sending copies of their political file to the FCC to post online in a portal.

Among other things, that would allow voters to learn at least some information about nonprofit groups, which now can spend money in unlimited amounts to influence elections without registering with the Federal Election Commission. 

The rule has been contentious and it's still not certain it will take effect before this year's election. The National Association of Broadcasters and the same media companies that own local TV stations lobbied hard against the FCC ruling. Then the NAB pushed the OMB to reject the rule. The industry trade association has also filed a lawsuit against the FCC to keep the rule from taking effect. The NAB argues that the rule is burdensome for stations and would publicize sensitive ad rate information; the FCC rejected these arguments.

The NAB declined to comment for this article. 

The media reform group Free Press applauded the news.

"We are extremely pleased that OMB has approved the FCC's imminently sensible approach to modernizing public access to data. Ironically, despite misplaced broadcaster claims, the new rules will reduce both paper and work for the public and industry," said Corie Wright, senior attorney for the Free Press. 

The FCC rule only applies to the four largest broadcast networks, and not to cable, even though one of the country's biggest cable providers, Time Warner, has voluntarily put this information online. It would also only cover the nation's 50 biggest media markets.

That would leave the ad buys in many areas of swing states like Wisconsin offline. The Sunlight Foundation and its partners are asking volunteers to gather those files, beginning with a pilot project in Wisconsin. Sunlight plans to post them to a searchable, sortable database that will be available this fall.