WASHINGTON – The Federal Election Commission has begun considering whether to issue new rules on how political campaigns are waged on the Internet, a regulatory process that is expected to take months to complete but that is already generating considerable angst online.
The agency is weighing whether, and how, to impose restrictions on a host of online activities, including campaign advertising and politically oriented blogs.
The FEC, which enforces federal election law, had issued scores of regulations delineating how the campaign finance reform legislation adopted in 2002 ought to be implemented. But Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Martin Meehan, D-Mass., who sponsored the legislation, complained that many of those rules were too lax, and they successfully sued to have them rescinded.
The commission must now rewrite a number of those directions, including ones that left online political activities virtually free from government regulation.
“We are almost certainly going to move from an environment in which the Internet was per se not regulated to where it is going to be regulated in some part,” said FEC Commissioner David Mason, a Republican. “… People who are conducting political activity on the Internet are suddenly going to have to worry about or at least be conscious of certain legal distinctions and lines they didn’t used to have to worry about.”
Which people, what activities and where those lines should be drawn, though, have yet to be determined.
Should bloggers who work for political campaigns, for example, be required to disclose that relationship? Should their writings include a disclaimer indicating they were paid for by a campaign? What if an independent blogger endorses a candidate, or posts a campaign’s news release? Are those contributions?
The three Democrats and three Republicans in the commission haven’t settled on an agenda for this latest round of rulemaking. That is expected to come later this month. The FEC is scheduled to then invite public comments on that draft, hold a public hearing on the proposed rules and, later this summer, vote on the final regulations.
Republican Commissioner Bradley Smith, who opposed some previous attempts to impose regulations on online political activities, sparked a furious debate among bloggers earlier this month when he told the online technology magazine CNET that the FEC might regulate their activities. He argued, for example, that the laws that allow publications such as newspapers to make political endorsements without having them considered akin to financial contributions to those campaigns – and therefore subject to government regulation – may not apply to bloggers who back candidates.
His comments quickly ricocheted across the Web, as bloggers began wondering if they might have to bone up on election law. A few prominent online political strategists and bloggers sent a letter recently to the FEC, urging it not to restrict unpaid political activities on the Internet.
Four commissioners – Democrats Scott Thomas and Ellen Weintraub, along with Republicans Michael Toner and Mason – said they oppose regulating independent bloggers.
Weintraub said the commission would likely focus on other issues, such as whether to subject expenditures on Internet ad campaigns to the agency’s contribution rules.
Some longtime FEC observers said they believed the commission would tackle a relatively narrow slate of issues.
“I think what the FEC is going to focus on is political activity undertaken by campaigns, by political committees, by possibly corporations and labor unions on the Internet … how you regulate that, how you make sure that’s reported,” said Larry Noble, a former FEC general counsel who now runs the watchdog group Center for Responsive Politics.