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A Good Day for Campaign Transparency at the FPPC

The way voters get their news and education has rapidly changed from print and television sources to the online news marketplace, blogosphere and social media arenas.  At the same time, the regulations governing campaign expense reporting remain focused on traditional media, leaving voters without enough information to know if what they read online is independent, objective analysis or if it is bought and paid for.

I attended the monthly meeting of the California Fair Political Practices Commission today as they continued their discussion of Draft Regulation 18421.5, which would “create a more specific and easily identifiable report of when a committee pays a person or group to create online content on behalf of the committee.“

I was thrilled that the Commission may adopt these new regulations as soon as August, but there are some outstanding issues that still need to be addressed.

To that end, I posed this question to the Commissioners:

“Say a campaign hired a consulting company that had 20 employees and each of those employees spent part of their day posting material online for that specific campaign.  Would this new regulation then require that the consultant/campaign disclose who the employees are and what they worked on or would it simply be one large 'firm-wide’ disclosure?"

The concern is that a voter should never be forced to do hours of research to determine if a blogger is an agent of a firm or campaign. Without clarity in the rules, big consulting firms could report one giant “paid-media” expense and their staff would continue to remain anonymous online.

Under the leadership of Chair Ann Ravel – who has been on the right side of this issue for a long time – the Commission’s staff had already been working to address our concern and responded by saying their intent was to ensure the new regulations required the most specific reporting and disclosures as possible. This included putting the onus on the campaign and its agents to disclose who and what content was created and where it was created on.

As I left the podium, I encouraged the Commission and their staff to go even further and force paid online content providers to disclose their economic interest at the point of the communication just like newspapers do with their editor’s notes.

Chair Ravel said that the type of full disclosure Consumer Watchdog, and other reform groups like Common Cause, had been pushing for was her ultimate goal and that her hope is that this proposed set of regulations will serve as the first step along the way.

We’ll be tracking to make sure this is the beginning, not the end, of real campaign disclosure online.