FCC proposes making political ads more transparent


The FCC just began circulating among FCC commissioners an NPRM that promises to effect Sunlight’s demands for more transparency in political ad spending. An NPRM is a “notice of proposed rulemaking.” It’s the infancy of a change in regulation, spelled out in detail and published for public feedback. Of course, some rules are bad, but this one is far from that, at least at this stage — even if it’s many years late.

The initialism “NPRM” doesn’t mean anything to most people, but to us, today, it means progress and success. It’s the beginning of Act Two — the start of a new battle in the fight to drag money in politics out of the dark.

The whole process began years ago as the public interest sphere demanded that broadcast television stations — which receive the lion’s share of political ad spending, and have the billions in revenue to prove it — should have to put their public files, including those about political advertisements, online. A simple enough suggestion that, unlike detractors’ claims, did no damage to the industry and provided the public with vastly improved access to critical information about who is paying to influence votes through the public’s airwaves. The FCC says that these political files have drawn millions of views (we’re probably part of that).

Those television broadcaster rules went into full effect in July 2014. By the end of the month, the Sunlight Foundation — with the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause and the Institute for Public Representation — had called on the FCC to do better, to make up for some of the time lost to hemming and hawing about the television broadcast rules and to expand these online file requirements to the other industry actors making tons of money on political ads: cable and satellite systems. The FCC responded almost immediately (in FCC terms), and on Aug. 7 called for public comment on our petition. They actually brought in radio broadcasters for good measure.

We filed our comments (in support), others filed concerns and now we’re able to see that the FCC is serious about moving forward on this issue — a heartening development considering that plenty of petitions and possible rules simply starve from inaction. (Fun fact: the National Association of Broadcasters changed their tune about the whole online filing thing once they lost the TV broadcaster fight, and are now calling for the whole political ad industry to sit under the same sun. We hope to hear that same tune during the NPRM comment process.)

Needless to say, we’ll continue to stay engaged with this. We’ll continue building tools like Political Ad Sleuth that help people and journalists examine what billions are doing what for whom, and continue to keep the FCC on their toes about enforcing the rules that already exist.

While there are still plenty of reasons to despair about the state of political spending and money in politics, this one is a fight we are — and plan on — winning.