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Free Press Calls for Disclosure on "Astroturf" Groups

Media reform group Free Press wants the FCC to force so-called "astroturf" groups to identify their connections with industry in filings on their meetings with, or presentations to, FCC officials.

That call came in reply comments filed June 8 on the FCC's proposal to tighten those rules, which require
outside parties making written or oral presentations to commissioners and/or staff on issues in an open
commission proceeding to disclose those presentations publicly.

Free Press argues that disclosure rules should apply to all comments and filings at the FCC, not just those under
the ex parte rules. "[T]ransparency will help limit confusion over groups that purport to be representatives of the public interest, yet advocate at the Commission on behalf of industry interests that pay them specifically
for their advocacy work," said the group.

Free Press wants disclosure of all contributing organizations to a group, rather than simply disclosure of ownership. "Astroturf organizations are often structured as independent organizations that receive ongoing or per-project funding from industry, rather than anything resembling an equity stake," they argue.

Free Press also supports the FCC's proposal to increase the sanctions for noncompliance with ex parte rules, but
argues that fines should vary according to the size of the organization. "There is no fixed amount of monetary
forfeiture that will be simultaneously large enough to be a meaningful deterrent for corporations with
multibillion-dollar revenues and yet small enough not to cripple a non-profit organization."

And so as not to scare away participation from smaller groups, it says the FCC should have clear warnings and an
opportunity to repair incomplete ex parte notices before fining or otherwise penalizing those groups.