Broadcasters will be required to upload a treasure trove of political spending data to the Internet under new rules approved by the Federal Communications Commission on Friday.
Broadcasters are currently required to collect and store various types of public information, including the political advertising they run. But most of that information is kept in paper form at individual stations; FCC officials are seeking to make the data available online.
The rules will mandate that all TV broadcasters put their public files online immediately. The largest broadcasters must move their political files online in coming months, but most other stations will have until 2014 to comply. All of the data will be accessible on the FCC's website.
Broadcasters have pushed back against the rules, saying that they are too expensive, and could allow competitors to access rate information.
FCC officials argue that the costs will likely be minimal, especially compared with the billions of dollars that stations take in from political campaigns. "In this context the cost of uploading these documents are far outweighed by the benefits to the public," FCC lawyer Holly Saurer said at Friday's open meeting. She also noted that information about ad rates has been available in the public files for years.
When FCC staffers went to access the public files at a station in Baltimore, the process took more than 60 hours and cost them nearly $2,000 in photocopying fees, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said. That, he said, illustrates the need to put the files online, where the public can find them easier and for less cost.
GOP Commissioner Robert McDowell dissented from the decision. He said that the FCC could work to increase transparency without burdening broadcasters or exposing unintended information. "The political file is for examining political spending, not broadcaster behavior," he said.