McDowell: Why the Rush To Put Political Files Online?

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Federal Communications Commmission commissioner Robert McDowell says that the agency's proposal to make TV stations' political files part of an online public database managed by the commission is fixing "what appears to be a nonexistent problem" with "little to no" evidence that the information in that file is not already available to whoever needs to see it.

McDowell cautioned the FCC not to rush into such a regime.

The political file proposal is one of several involving the planned migration of TV station public files to an online database overseen by the FCC.

According to a copy of the commissioner's speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington Friday, McDowell pointed out that there is speculation the move was prompted by some wanting to track political spending in the wake of the Citizens United decision. He pointed out that decision reaffirmed that political speech was core protected speech. "Given this Constitutional context why would the government want to have such information loaded onto its website to monitor in real time?" he asked.

Political file information includes proprietary and competitively sensitive information about all political time requests, including ad pricing.

He also said what he called an over-regulatory path would lead to economic hits on broadcasters. Compliance costs for putting the files online could average $120,000-$140,000 a year, he said, diverting funds from newsgathering and local programming, all arguments broadcasters have made to the commission in opposing the move.

And while he conceded there may be some "marginal upside" to putting the political files online, he made a pitch for not rushing into it. "[W]e must resist imposing a burdensome requirement to upload all correspondence regarding political ad buys "immediately," as the FCC has proposed, which during a busy election season may need updating several times a day," he said.

He said publishing price info could have the unintended consequence of encouraging anticompetitive practices like price collusion, "and would put the government's thumb on the scale during advertising negotiations."

McDowell advised his commission colleagues to take a break and think through the consequences, saying: "After all, what's the rush?"

McDowell also echoed his concerns about the potential of giving the UN expanded powers over the Internet. He said dozens of countries are pushing that goal, which he said would be the reversal of long-standing agreements to keep governments from regulating "core functions" of the 'net.

He said that a "top-down, centralized, international regulatory overlay" as he fears could be imposed at an international conference, is antithetical to the architecture of the Net, and called it "the most important communications issue affecting freedom."

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