Groups Weigh In on Web Politicking

By Brian Faler
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 5, 2005

A raft of lawmakers, campaign finance watchdog groups, election lawyers and bloggers urged the Federal Election Commission on Friday to exempt the vast majority of -- if not all -- individual political activists on the Internet from new regulations.

The comments, submitted hours before an agency deadline, came as the FEC considers whether and how to regulate online political activities, including blogging, advertising and e-mail. The commission had proposed shielding virtually all online political activities from government restrictions. But two sponsors of the campaign finance reform legislation approved in 2002 successfully sued to overturn that and some other policies. The court's decision left it to the FEC to decide which activities to regulate.

That has worried bloggers, in particular, who fear they will have to consult lawyers to ensure they do not run afoul of any new rules. The FEC, which is scheduled to decide the issue later this year, released a draft of its proposed regulations this spring that indicated it intended to take a relatively light hand. The agency also invited public comment on its proposal.

The authors of the campaign finance reform law, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) and Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.), filed a joint statement urging the agency to ignore individuals' politicking on the Internet and focus instead on tightening rules governing online activities of unions, corporations and state political parties.

The lawmakers asked the FEC to exempt ordinary individuals and all bloggers from such regulations. They said bloggers who take money from political campaigns should not have to disclose that on their Web sites, as some have proposed. The lawmakers also said that bloggers who incorporate for liability purposes should not have to abide by rules barring corporations from contributing to political candidates.

The lawmakers complained that current rules allow state parties to use large, unregulated contributions of "soft money" to pay for federal election-related communications on the Internet while also allowing corporations and unions to buy and coordinate online ad campaigns with candidates. The lawmakers said the FEC's proposal to restrict such activities is not aggressive enough and ought to be expanded.

"The Commission must tread very carefully in this area so as not to stifle the virtually limitless potential of this exciting medium," their statement said. "At the same time, there is no reason to believe that moneyed interests will not attempt to use the Internet to influence policies and policy as they attempt to do with other modes of communications. Indeed, there is every reason to expect that they will."

Several prominent Washington-based campaign finance reform groups largely echoed the lawmakers' recommendations. The Center for Responsive Politics, the Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21 filed comments asking the FEC to exempt most bloggers and to crack down on soft money online while not taking a position on whether bloggers should have to disclose being on a candidate's payroll.

Other election lawyers and bloggers filed remarks urging the FEC to adopt far fewer regulations. Several asked it to grant bloggers the same broad legal protections that allow traditional news media companies that are incorporated to endorse political candidates without those endorsements being equated with financial contributions to campaigns. Some suggested that the agency regulate online advertising spending only above certain thresholds.

The FEC has scheduled public hearings later this month and is slated to announce final rules in the fall.

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