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FCC Proposes Comment-Disclosure Regime

WASHINGTON — Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler wants the agency to act on a process reform report that would require advocacy groups filing comments with the agency to disclose their financial backers.

The disclosure requirements would appear to be similar to rules that Congressional Democrats have pressed the FCC to establish regarding groups that buy political advertising.

Pointing out that the issue of who is the “real party in- interest” in such proceedings was teed up in a 2011 Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the report advises the FCC’s Office of General Counsel to draft an order recommending the agency adopt rules that groups must identify their financial supporters.

“Disclosure of the real party-in-interest behind FCC filings would help the agency, other parties and the public evaluate the credibility of factual and policy arguments by knowing who is making them,” the report advised. “It would also increase public confidence in our decisionmaking process by making clear that the commission is aware of the source of the arguments before it.

“Such rules would allow all interested members of the public, not just industry insiders, to know who is attempting to influence the agency’s decision-making process,” the report said.

While industry groups like the National Cable & Telecommunications Association are member-funded, think tanks, coalitions and public-interest groups that want to file comments would have to name their financial supporters.

The leader of one such group — Craig Aaron, president of media-reform advocacy group Free Press — said he is fine with that.

“Sunshine is the best disinfectant,” Aaron told Multichannel News. “We support more open and transparent FCC filings — and think that any and all groups should come clean about significant financial support they’ve received from companies seeking changes or favors from the FCC.”

Conceding that he doesn’t think the FCC is looking to have all groups identify their funding sources for every filing, Harold Feld, senior vice president of open-Internet advocate Public Knowledge, said he thinks the concept makes a lot of sense.

“The disclosure laws the FCC enforces work on the principle that people have a right to know when someone is trying to influence them,” Feld said. “The same principles apply with equal force to efforts to influence the FCC.”

But Larry Spiwack, president of the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal & Economic Public Policy Studies, said he sees the issue a lot differently. Noting that his group does not file FCC comments, he argued that the FCC is playing politics.

He noted the FCC’s language that “an organization purporting to represent consumer interests may actually represent industry, or may be influenced by industry contributions.”

It’s not the quality of your work that matters, but the agency’s assessment of your “motives,” he wrote on his blog following the FCC announcement.