On Bloggers and Money
Tuesday, May 3, 2005
You could almost hear the blogosphere sigh with relief earlier this spring when federal election officials indicated that they did not plan to crack down on bloggers who write about politics.
The Federal Election Commission, which has been considering issuing new regulations on a range of political activities on the Internet -- and was said by some to be contemplating taking a tough stance on the online commentators -- revealed in late March that it intends to be much less aggressive than many had feared. But now some observers are wondering whether the FEC is not being aggressive enough when it comes to one category of bloggers: those who take money from political campaigns.
The FEC requires candidates to disclose their expenditures, including any payments to bloggers, in periodic reports to the government. Some bloggers also disclose their financial relationships with candidates, but they are not obliged to reveal those payments, and the agency recently said it is not proposing requiring them to do so.
Some election law experts want the FEC to reverse that policy, saying it gives campaigns the opportunity to use ostensibly independent blogs as fronts to create the illusion of grass-roots support, mount attacks on their opponents and disseminate information to which candidates do not want their names attached.
"The concern is that somebody is blogging at the behest of a campaign and nobody knows it," said Richard L. Hasen, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who maintains a blog on election law.
"If, for example, you are a U.S. Senate candidate and you have a blogger who you're paying to write good things about you and bad things about your opponent, it will eventually come out. But that may not come out until after the election," Hasen said.
"But even if it comes out, there's something to be said for having the information right there, so when you click on the Web site you see it says 'Authorized by Smith for Congress,' " he added. "Voters rely on those pieces of information as cues in terms of how much stock they should put in what someone is saying."
Others pushing for the disclaimers note the FEC said it is leaning toward requiring them on certain types of political advertising on the Internet. They say paid bloggers' sites can be tantamount to ads and ought to be subject to the same disclosure rules.
The agency is tackling that and a number of other often arcane legal questions after a federal court ordered it to rewrite election rules that had left online political activities virtually free from government regulation. The six-member commission revealed its regulatory agenda March 23 in a "notice of proposed rulemaking."
That document indicated that the panel is disinclined to impose many new rules on bloggers and others who use the Internet to engage in political activities. The agency, which is accepting public comments on the issue until June 3, is not expected to decide the final regulations until later this year. Scott Thomas, the FEC's Democratic chairman, said it has yet to hear from the authors of the 2002 campaign finance reform legislation or any of the prominent watchdog groups on the disclaimer issue.
"We really haven't gotten any of the usual suspects to submit a comment yet," Thomas said.
Congress could short-circuit the FEC process, though, if it passes a measure approved last week by the Senate Rules Committee. That bill would bar the FEC from regulating political activities online. Thomas declined to comment on the legislation.