online political advertising

Now that we are immersed in the heart of the political broadcasting season, issues of sponsorship identification regularly arise.  For on-air broadcasts, any paid advertisement that conveys a message dealing with any controversial issue of public importance (state or federal) requires at a minimum an on-air sponsorship identification stating that the ad was “paid for” or “sponsored by” the person or organization that paid for the time.  Federal candidates have a more extensive obligation for identifying themselves in their ads, particularly if they mention an opposing candidate.  These identification rules come both from the FCC (which stations need to enforce) and from the Federal Election Commission, which are the responsibility of the candidate and their campaign committee.  To help sort out some of these obligations, and the requirements for political disclosure statements and federal candidate certifications that entitle them to lowest unit rates, check out this video that I prepared for the Indiana Broadcasters Association as part of a series on political broadcasting topics:  https://www.indianabroadcasters.org/iba-news/political-advertising-requirements-with-iba-washington-counsel-david-oxenford/

The video covers the requirements of broadcasters to ensure that the proper sponsorship identification is contained in political advertising.  Online political advertising, however, is much more complicated as there is no single body of law that governs those responsibilities.  As we wrote here, the FEC has general requirements providing that online political advertising must have sponsorship identification. The FEC also has an open proceeding to mandate more stringent sponsorship identification obligations akin to those required on broadcast and local cable political advertising.  Last week, the Congressional Research Service issued a study on the state of the law regarding online political advertising, highlighting the many issues involved in providing more robust political disclosures.  These issues are at least partially triggered by the many players involved in online advertising sales.  There is a very readable outline on pages 16-19 of the report on all the players in the digital advertising ecosystem – with intermediaries, including demand- and supply-side platforms, that complicate the usual direct interaction between the media outlet and the advertising buyer, which in turn complicates the political compliance process for sponsorship identification.  The study, on page 18, even cites to the article that I wrote discussing the concerns about sponsorship identification in any programmatic political advertising.
Continue Reading Sponsorship of Political Advertising On-Air and On-Line – A Video Presentation and a Congressional Research Service Study

The question about what to do with the protections offered by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act took another turn this week, when Joe Biden suggested that online platforms needed to take responsibility for the content posted on them and correct misinformation in those ads.  That position is seemingly the opposite of the President’s Executive Order about which we wrote here and here, which seemingly suggests that no censorship should be applied against political speech on these platforms – or certainly no censorship against certain kinds of speech that is not applied against speech from all other parties on that platform.  Facebook almost immediately posted this response, defending its position not to censor candidate’s speech and analogizing it to the position that television and radio broadcasters are forced by Congress to take – where by law they are not allowed to refuse to run a political ad from a candidate because of its content and they are shielded from liability because of their inability to censor these candidate ads.  Facebook took the position that, if Congress wants to regulate political speech, it should pass laws to do so, but that Facebook would not itself be a censor.  That position reminded us of an article that we wrote back in January when there were calls to make Facebook stop running political ads comparing the regulatory schemes that apply to political ads on different platforms.  Given its new relevance in light of the sudden prominence of the debate over Section 230, we thought that we would rerun our earlier article.  Here it is – and we note how we seemingly anticipated the current debate in our last paragraph:

[In January], the New York Times ran an article seemingly critical of Facebook for not rejecting ads  from political candidates that contained false statements of fact.  We have already written that this policy of Facebook matches the policy that Congress has imposed on broadcast stations and local cable franchisees who sell time to political candidates – they cannot refuse an ad from a candidate’s authorized campaign committee based on its content – even if it is false or even defamatory (see our posts here and here for more on the FCC’s “no censorship” rule that applies to broadcasting and local cable systems).  As this Times article again raises this issue, we thought that we should again provide a brief recap of the rules that apply to broadcast and local cable political ad sales, and contrast these rules to those that currently apply to online advertising.
Continue Reading Facebook Defends Not Censoring Political Ads – Looking at the Differences In Regulation of Political Speech on Different Communications Platforms

This weekend, the New York Times ran an article seemingly critical of Facebook for not rejecting ads  from political candidates that contained false statements of factWe have already written that this policy of Facebook matches the policy that Congress has imposed on broadcast stations and local cable franchisees who sell time to political candidates – they cannot refuse an ad from a candidate’s authorized campaign committee based on its content – even if it is false or even defamatory (see our posts here and here for more on the FCC’s “no censorship” rule that applies to broadcasting and local cable systems).  As this Times article again raises this issue, we thought that we should again provide a brief recap of the rules that apply to broadcast and local cable political ad sales, and contrast these rules to those that currently apply to online advertising.

As stated above, broadcast stations and local cable systems cannot censor candidate ads – meaning that they cannot reject these ads based on their content.  Commercial broadcast stations cannot even adopt a policy that says that they will not accept ads from federal candidates, as there is a right of “reasonable access” (see our article here, and as applied here to fringe candidates) that compels broadcast stations to sell reasonable amounts of time to federal candidates who request it.  Contrast this to, for instance, Twitter, which decided to ban all candidate advertising on its platform (see our article here).  There is no right of reasonable access to broadcast stations for state and local candidates, though once a station decides to sell advertising time in a particular race, all other rules, including the “no censorship” rule, apply to these ads (see our article here).  Local cable systems are not required to sell ads to any political candidates but, like broadcasters with respect to state and local candidates, once a local cable system sells advertising time to candidates in a particular race, all other FCC political rules apply.  National cable networks (in contrast to the local systems themselves) have never been brought under the FCC’s political advertising rules for access, censorship or any other requirements – although from time to time there have been questions as to whether those rules should apply.  So cable networks, at the present time, are more like online advertising, where the FCC rules do not apply.
Continue Reading Facebook Not Fact-Checking Candidate Ads – Looking at the Contrast Between Online Political Ads and Those Running on Broadcast and Cable

Late last week, the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit issued a decision in a case called Washington Post v. David J. McManus, upholding the ruling of the US District Court finding that the State of Maryland’s attempts to impose political advertising reporting obligations on online platforms to be an unconstitutional abridgment of these companies’ First Amendment rights.  The suit was brought by the Washington Post and several other companies owning newspapers with an online presence in the State.  Their arguments were supported by numerous other media organizations, including the NAB and NCTA.  The Maryland rules required that online advertising platforms post on their websites information about political ads within 48 hours of the purchase of those ads.  That information had to be maintained on the website for a year and kept for inspection by the Maryland Board of Elections for a year after the election was over.  The appeals court concluded that the obligation to reveal this information was forcing these platforms to speak, which the court found to be just as much against the First Amendment as telling them to not speak (e.g., preventing them from publishing).  As the court could find no compelling state interest in this obligation that could not be better met by less restrictive means, the law was declared unconstitutional.

The Maryland law required the following disclosures on the website of a platform that accepted political advertising:

  • the ad purchaser’s name and contact information;
  • the identity of the treasurer of the political committee or the individuals exercising control over the ad purchaser; and
  • the total amount paid for the ad.

In addition, the platform had to maintain the following information for a year after the election and make it available to the State authorities upon request:

  • the candidate or ballot issue to which the qualifying paid digital communication relates and whether the qualifying paid digital communication supports or opposes that candidate or ballot issue;
  • the dates and times that the qualifying paid digital communication was first disseminated and last disseminated;
  • a digital copy of the content of the qualifying paid digital communication;
  • an approximate description of the geographic locations where the qualifying paid digital communication was disseminated;
  • an approximate description of the audience that received or was targeted to receive the qualifying paid digital communication; and
  • the total number of impressions generated by the qualifying paid digital communication

The appeals court found that this “compelled speech” forced these platforms to “speak” when they otherwise might not want to – the “speaking” being the mandatory publication of information on their website.  The court also pointed to the potential of these rules to chill political speech, by compelling companies to reveal information about those who might otherwise not want to disclose that they are taking a position on a controversial issue or election.  The court found that anonymity in political speech was part of a long tradition in the US, and it could subject those buying the political ads to harassment.  Also, the added burden of collecting this information could cause platforms to reject political ads in favor of advertising where no such burden was imposed. 
Continue Reading Court of Appeals Finds Maryland Law Imposing Political Disclosure Obligations on Online Platforms to be Unconstitutional – Finding Different Treatment of Broadcasters is Justified

For radio and television stations with 5 or more full-time employees located in Arizona, Idaho, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wyoming, and the District of Columbia, June 1 brings the requirement that you upload to your online inspection file your Annual EEO Public Inspection File Report detailing your employment outreach efforts for job openings filled in the last year, as well as the supplemental efforts you have made to educate the community about broadcast employment or the training efforts undertaken to advance your employees skills. For TV stations that are part of Employment Units with five or more full-time employees and located in Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, you also need to submit your EEO Form 397 Mid-Term Report. See our article here on the Mid-Term Report, and another here on an FCC proposal that could lead to the elimination of the filing of the form.

June 1 should also serve as a reminder to radio stations in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia that your license renewal will be filed a year from now, on or before June 1, 2019. So, if you have not done so already, you should be reviewing your online public inspection file to make sure that it is complete, and otherwise review your station operations in anticipation of that filing. We wrote about some of the issues of concern for the upcoming license renewal cycle in our article here. TV stations in those same states will start the TV renewal cycle two years from now.
Continue Reading June Regulatory Dates for Broadcasters – EEO, Translators, Political Rules and Earth Stations

With high profile primaries in numerous states and similar elections last week, and more coming over the next few months in preparation for the November election, broadcasters are dealing with the legal issues that arise with on-air advertising that either promotes or attacks candidates and which addresses other important matters that will be decided in the election – including ballot issues in a number of states. While we have addressed many of the legal questions that arise with on-air political advertising in other posts on this blog and elsewhere (see, for instance, our Political Broadcasting Guide here and these slides from my recent presentation on the FCC political advertising rules for the Washington State Association of Broadcasters), we thought that it was worth discussing some of the efforts that are underway to bring FCC-like regulation to the world of online political advertising.

Thus far, the FCC has tended to stay out of the online political broadcasting world. As we wrote a decade ago, other than having to give some consideration to the value of online advertising thrown into a package with over-the-air ads, the FCC avoids regulation of ad sales on websites and advertising delivered solely through other digital media platforms. So a broadcaster who sells stand-alone online ads to political candidates or issue advertisers need not worry about questions of lowest unit rates, reasonable access, or the political file.
Continue Reading Moving Broadcast Political Advertising Rules to the Online World – NY State Adopts a New Law While Congress Considers Online Political Advertising Disclosures, and the FEC Considers Enhanced Online Sponsorship Identification

May is one of those months where there are neither deadlines for EEO Public File Reports nor for any of the quarterly filings of issues/programs lists and children’s television reports. But the lack of these routine filing deadlines does not mean that there are no dates of interest in the coming month to broadcasters and other media companies. As seemingly is the case every month, there are never times when Washington is ignoring legal issues potentially affecting the industry.

May 10 brings an FCC meeting where two items of interest to broadcasters will be considered. One is a proposal to abolish the requirement for posting licenses and other operating authorizations at a broadcaster’s control point and to eliminate the requirement that FM translators post information about the station’s licensee and a contact phone number at their transmitter sites (see our post here for more details). The second is a proposal to modify the processing of complaints about new or modified FM translators causing interference to existing stations. See our summary of that proposal here. If adopted at the May 10 meeting, these proposals will be available for public comment after they are published in the Federal Register.
Continue Reading May Regulatory Dates for Broadcasters – FCC Meeting, FM Translator and LPTV Filing Windows, Political Windows and More Consideration of Music Reforms

This past week, former Senator Fred Thompson created a committee to explore a run for the Presidency.  In every article written about the former Senator, like one recently run in the Washington Post, mention is made of his current broadcasting career – his role on Law and Order and as a guest host on Paul Harvey’s radio program.  And all the articles assume that the campaign will result in the termination of these roles, and also present issues about the broadcast and cablecast of reruns of Law and Order episodes and old movies in which he appeared.  In some cases, that is true.  In others, it remains to be seen.  But the potential candidacy does offer a good opportunity for a review of the equal time obligations of broadcasters under FCC rules.

"Equal time" or "equal opportunities" require that broadcast stations give treat candidates for the same political race in an even-handed fashion.  If they sell time to one candidate, they have to give the other candidate equal opportunities to buy the same amount of time in programs reaching roughly the same size audience.  If time is provided to a candidate without charge, and the candidate’s on-air appearance is outside of a news or news interview programs and is not part of on-the-spot coverage of a news event, then the broadcaster must make equal time available to the opposing candidate, if that candidate requests it within 7 days of the use by the first candidate.

However, none of these obligations arise until a candidate is legally qualified – essentially when he or she has filed the necessary papers to obtain a place on the ballot in accordance with the governing law of the jurisdiction in which the election will be held.  In Thompson’s case, as he has not even officially announced that he is running, he is not yet a legally qualified candidate, so for the time being, there is no issue with the continued airing of the programs in which he appears. 


Continue Reading Law and Order: Equal Opportunites – The FCC Implications of Fred Thompson’s Possible Presidential Bid