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Friday, March 11, 2005

Could the FEC Crack Down on Political Blogging?

Federal Election Commission commissioner Bradley Smith suggests that bloggers may be in violation of the McCain-Feingold federal election laws if they link to campaign websites or even forward candidate press release content.

The fundamental question is whether bloggers are seen by the FEC as journalists or advertisers. If the FEC considers blogs to be advertisers, that could put political blogs at risk of being considered campaign contributors and therefore subject to McCain-Feingold contribution limits. As Smith explains:

The real question is: Would a link to a candidate's page be a problem? If someone sets up a home page and links to their favorite politician, is that a contribution? This is a big deal, if someone has already contributed the legal maximum, or if they're at the disclosure threshold and additional expenditures have to be disclosed under federal law.

Certainly a lot of bloggers are very much out front. Do we give bloggers the press exemption? If we don't give bloggers the press exemption, we have the question of, do we extend this to online-only journals...?

It would seem like any kind of FEC regulation would apply to blogs and websites that actively support a candidate or a party, as opposed to those that report objective news. But still, the FEC would have to determine what actually constitutes a donation. Would a link to a candidate's website -- especially a site that solicited cash contributions -- be considered a donation? And if so, what would be the value of a link? Could the FEC consider the cost of creating or maintaining the blog or website a donation as well?

Smith personally feels that the FEC trying to regulate the Internet is a bad idea, and opening up the proverbial can of worms:

I'd like someone to say that unpaid activity over the Internet is not an expenditure or contribution, or at least activity done by regular Internet journals, to cover sites like CNET, Slate and Salon. Otherwise, it's very likely that the Internet is going to be regulated, and the FEC and Congress will be inundated with e-mails saying, "How dare you do this!"

This is an incredible thicket. If someone else doesn't take action, for instance in Congress, we're running a real possibility of serious Internet regulation. It's going to be bizarre.

A group called the Online Coalition has posted a petition to FEC chairman Scott Thomas urging the commission to clarify its rules respect bloggers' and webmasters' right to free speech, saying in part: "Like the town hall meeting, online political activism is a vital part of American civic life. We encourage the FEC to provide bloggers, online journalists, and everyday cyber-citizens with the same freedoms that individuals and traditional journalists are free to exercise elsewhere." The letter's signers cover the political spectrum, from the conservative Heritage Foundation and RedState.org to the liberal Daily Kos. Readers are encouraged to "sign" the petition as well, as of now, the letter has 758 signatures.

Source: C|Net