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Petition to Ditch Online Political File System Gets Its Due

Stations propose aggregated rate compromise which is opposed by a public interest group

In addition to general input about the FCC’s online political file system, the commission is also asking for public input on a petition filed by a group of large television station owners asking the commission to rethink the online political file requirement altogether. They don’t believe it’s in the public interest to require stations to disclose online specific, spot-by-spot ad rate information.

During the month leading up to the Nov. 6, 2012 general election, stations uploaded nearly 27,000 documents to political files, peaking at 1582 documents uploaded on Nov 5, according to the FCC. In addition, the public file has attracted over 2.5 million page views on 500,000 unique visits to the site. The busiest day was Sept. 11, 2012, on which the site attracted 5,296 visits.

In the petition, filed in 2012, the stations argue that online disclosure of sensitive pricing information is anti-competitive, disrupts markets and is not contemplated by current campaign finance disclosure laws. As an alternative, the petition proposes the FCC continue to require stations make rate information available in hard-copy form in their local political files and allow stations to “opt-in” to post the aggregate amount of money spent by a political ad sponsor online, rather than the specific rate.

The Public Interest Public Airwaves Coalition opposes the petition, arguing that just posting aggregate data gets around what the commission is trying to accomplish — namely to modernize its reporting systems. Plus, the public can’t really tell from aggregated data whether stations are meeting their legal obligations with respect to lowest unit rate, equal time and public disclosure of the sources of political ads, according to the group. PIPAC also says the station proposal makes it harder for the public to find information, arguing that slogging through paper files is hard.

The FCC seeks comment on whether the voluntary nature of the proposal would affect the usefulness of the data and whether there are other mechanisms the agency should consider to improve public access to political ad data.

Comments to MB Dockets 00-168 and 00-44 are due by Aug. 26 and replies by Sept. 23. Federal Register publication triggered the comment deadlines.