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FEC Signals Light Hand On Internet Campaigning

By Brian Faler
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, March 24, 2005; Page A08

The Federal Election Commission revealed yesterday that it plans to take what one of its commissioners termed a "relatively nonintrusive" approach to regulating political campaigns on the Internet.

The agency, which is beginning to consider how and whether to restrict blogs, e-mail and other online activities, released a document describing the legal issues it plans to tackle over the next several months.

Its "notice of proposed rulemaking," as it is known, indicates that the FEC is focusing much of its attention on whether to apply federal contribution limits on online political advertising campaigns. It also indicates that the six-member panel has not decided to impose, but is leaning against imposing, restrictions on independent bloggers or bloggers who work for political campaigns.

"I think that we're trying to use this document as some sort of broad hint that, at least at this stage, we don't plan to regulate the vast majority of what individuals do [online] and the vast majority of what bloggers do," said FEC Chairman Scott E. Thomas (D).

"It is designed to give people a pretty clear signal that the FEC never did have any intent to overregulate citizens who want to use Internet technology for communicating in the area of politics," he added.

The agency is being forced to address the issue after losing a federal court case last fall. Two of the sponsors of the campaign finance reform legislation that was adopted in 2002 had sued the FEC, complaining that the regulations it wrote to implement the law were too lax. In September, the legislation's sponsors won. The agency must now rewrite a number of those rules, including ones that had left online political activities virtually free from government regulation. But the FEC is free to address whatever legal issues it chooses.

Commissioner Bradley A. Smith (R) sparked a firestorm in the blogosphere earlier this month when he suggested that the agency might begin regulating bloggers who back political candidates. Since then, several other FEC commissioners, who oppose the idea, have taken their views to the news media.

But this is the first time the FEC has revealed its agenda for this round of rulemaking. The agency will collect public comments on the document for 60 days after it is published in the Federal Register, said Thomas. The agency then plans to hold a public hearing on the issue and then, this summer or possibly this fall, vote on the final regulations.

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