At yesterday’s FCC Open Commission Meeting , the Commission proposed to require television stations to make their “ public inspection file ” available online. But availability is not accessibility. If the FCC follows its usual practice of having filers submit PDFs (many of which are often scanned from printed documents), this data may be nearly useless to the small number of researchers who would really benefit from having a large set of public inspection files available online.

The public inspection file, a traditional hallmark of broadcast regulation, is a collection of documents that all radio and television stations must maintain and make available to anyone who asks to see it. Under the FCC’s existing rules, the file must contain, among other things:

  1. A complete record of airtime purchases by, or on behalf of, any political candidates or political issues of national importance.
  2. A quarterly report on the “programs containing [the station’s] most significant treatment of community issues.”

Neither is filed with the FCC and thus both are available only directly from the station. But accessing the file shouldn’t be difficult. The FCC’s rules clearly state that the file should be “available to members of the public at any time during regular business hours.” You can even ask the station staff to make photocopies for you (though you’ll have to pay for the copies).

Although the proposal voted on yesterday hasn’t yet been released publicly, the plan as reported would require stations to submit information to the FCC, which will develop a publicly-searchable online database of the submissions. This is in marked contrast to a 2007 FCC rule which required stations to put public inspection files on their own websites. Broadcasters sued to block the implementation of the previous rule, arguing that the FCC underestimated the paperwork burden and voicing First Amendment concerns. The court sent the previous rule back to the FCC for revision, which the FCC had been silent about until today.

At yesterday’s meeting, Commissioner Clyburn complained that most public inspection files are “ in the deep recesses of broadcast stations, in dilapidated filing cabinets ,” but this complaint misses the point. Stations don’t bring members of the public into their “deep recesses.” They ask them to have a seat in their lobby while some station staffer retrieves the file. What could be easier? You might even see a local celebrity while you wait!

But in fact, the public inspection files of most stations are almost never requested. In 2007, Viacom stated that visits to its stations’ public inspection files were “exceedingly rare … less than one annually, virtually all of whom are college students on assignment.” That’s probably because most people don’t know of their existence.

Just putting the public inspection files online would certainly make them more accessible and might lead to more public review. But the real beneficiaries of the FCC’s new rule are researchers. The primary “research” that researchers do is comparing data across stations and/or across time to identify larger trends. But if the new system the FCC develops for the public inspection file data is like many of the FCC’s existing online databases, it will be of limited use. Most FCC databases allow users to only search for a single licensee and most of the data they contain is only available in separate PDF files for each licensee. This makes it very time-consuming to, for example, determine which station in a city receives the most political airtime purchases, or to track political airtime purchases over time.

This outdated approach to disclosure is fundamentally inconsistent with the broader efforts of the Obama Adminstration to implement Open Government through meaningful disclosure. The Open Government Directive directs agencies to

“publish information online in an open format that can be retrieved, downloaded, indexed, and searched by commonly used web search applications. An open format is one that is platform independent, machine readable, and made available to the public without restrictions that would impede the re-use of that information.”

In a 2010 memo to the heads of executive departments and agencies, Cass Sunstein, head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, explained “There is a difference between making a merely technical disclosure–that is, making information available somewhere and in some form, regardless of its usefulness–and actually informing choices.” Sunstein’s vision of transparency isn’t merely a means of opening up government, but also a less restrictive alternative to prescriptive regulation. That’s exactly why we have public files in the first place: because forced disclosure is less restrictive than limiting political advertisements or meddling (even more) with public interest programming.

The idea of transparency as an alternative to regulation goes all the way back to President Clinton’s Executive Order 12866 (1993): “Each agency shall identify and assess available alternatives to direct regulation, including … providing information upon which choices can be made by the public.” And in another memo to agency heads from just last month, Sunstein explained the benefits of Smart Disclosure, which

“makes information not merely available, but also accessible and usable, by structuring disclosed data in standardized, machine readable formats. … In many cases, smart disclosure enables third parties to analyze, repackage, and reuse information to build tools that help individual consumers to make more informed choices in the marketplace.”

Thus, if the FCC is going to require stations to collect certain information and make that information available to the public, it should make that information accessible too. That means requiring stations to submit the data in machine-readable format and ensuring that the submitted data is then made available in compliance with the 8 Principles of Open Government Data . While these principles were not developed by the Federal government, they are in keeping with the spirit of the FCC’s Data Innovation Initiative . FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is exactly right: “public data should be accessible to the public in meaningful ways using modern digital tools.”

Fine words, Mr. Chairman. Why not start with public files?