March 24, 2006 5:58 PM PST

Election commission takes light touch with Net regs

The Internet's freewheeling days as a place exempt from the heavy hand of federal election laws are about to end.

Late Friday, the Federal Election Commission released a 96-page volume of Internet regulations that have been anticipated for more than a year and represent the government's most extensive foray yet into describing how bloggers and Web sites must abide by election law restrictions.

The rules (click here for PDF) say that paid Web advertising, including banner ads and sponsored links on search engines, will be regulated like political advertising in other types of media. They also say bloggers can enjoy the freedoms of traditional news organizations when endorsing a candidate or engaging in political speech.

If the regulations are approved by the FEC at its meeting on Monday, they will represent a substantial change from a far more aggressive version of the regulations seen by CNET News.com last year. An outcry from bloggers and even members of Congress appears to have caused FEC lawyers--who are under court order to regulate the Internet--to rethink the rules and adopt a more laissez-faire approach.

Though not all the implications of the 96-page document were immediately clear, one prominent advocate of Internet free speech said the rules are preferable over what could have happened.

"They've tried to take a light hand, and it looks like they might have succeeded," Brad Smith, a former FEC chairman who teaches law at Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio, said in a telephone interview. Smith said, though, that he was not able to review the document in detail.

Also exempted from the sweep of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act--better known as the McCain-Feingold law--are e-mail messages sent to 500 or fewer people, posting a video unless it's a paid advertisement, and online activities done by volunteers even if the actions are undertaken without the knowledge of the campaign. In addition, an employee's "incidental" use of a company's computers for political activity is acceptable.

Bob Bauer, a partner in the political law group of the Perkins Coie law firm, said now "we have some clarity, much of it on the deregulation side, which for many activities means little change."

An unusual political backdrop
The FEC's internal deliberations are taking place against an unusual backdrop of congressional action. Bloggers of all political stripes, many politicians and even FEC Chairman Michael Toner have thrown their support behind a proposal in Congress that would amend current law and largely immunize the Internet from election law.

An effort to do just that was defeated by Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives last November. In a second attempt to enact the same proposal, a House panel this month approved the bill again, but the release of the FEC rules could delay it indefinitely. (A similar measure is pending in the Senate.)

Critics of a broad exemption--including the New York Times editorial board--say that excluding all Internet communications is a recipe for corruption, giving candidates the green light to coordinate unfettered soft-money online spending with corporations, labor unions and wealthy donors.

Rick Hasen, who teaches election law at Loyola Law School, has called for what he describes as moderate Internet regulation. Hasen said the FEC rules clear up a lot of unanswered questions, such as whether a Web site like Slate.com or Salon.com qualifies for the media exemption.

"I would have liked to see one kind of regulation that's not here, which is disclosure that a blogger has been paid for by a candidate or committee to take a position in an election," Hasen said. "The FEC expressly says that's not required."

The FEC is under court order to issue new regulations establishing parameters for the Internet. It had issued regulations in 2002 that completely carved out Internet communications from the freshly enacted 2002 McCain-Feingold law. But U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly overturned the FEC's set of rules in fall 2004, saying at the time that the commission's move "severely undermines" the campaign finance law's purposes.

The three Republican commissioners--including Smith, who's now a law professor--had wanted to appeal the Internet-related sections. But because they couldn't get even one of the three Democrats to go along with them and give them a majority, that didn't happen and the FEC began the current proceeding.

Smith, who co-founded a nonprofit group called the Center for Competitive Politics, said Friday that the original immunization of the Internet by the FEC has led to no torrent of abuses.

"You have to sit and wonder if it wouldn't have been better to stay with that rather than the judge forcing the commission to go back and write a 96-page rule," Smith said.

CNET News.com's Anne Broache contributed to this report

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20 comments

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Posted by vampares (39 comments )
Reply Link Flag
At Last Sock Puppets Are Vindicated!!!
A bipartsian message brought
To u V'ia 30x100m ls on ly $59.
yo by gra g pil
Posted by vampares (39 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Politicians responsible for plundering free speech
One of the great historical steps forward in political freedom was
the removal of the government's right to control political
speech. Now we have the FEC promulgating regulations over
such speech. The American people accept this attack on rights
like compliant sheep. It isn't about so-called homeland security
or obscenity, it is simply a muzzle on opposition by incumbent
politicians -- and those who hope to become incumbents. The
names of every politician who supported this historic plundering
of rights should be emblazened on the memory of all free
people, but none more so than John McCain, Russ Feingold, and
Thad Cochran, the main sponsors, Olympia Snowe and Jim
Jeffords, who contributed a key amendments, and George Bush,
the president who signed it.

When Americans valued freedom this power grab would have
inspired riots.
Posted by nicmart (1829 comments )
Reply Link Flag
When?
Plundering of free speech? there has not been a single moment of
American history, either pre independence of post, where speech
has been unregulated, and the vast majority supported this.

"When Americans valued freedom this power grab would have
inspired riots."

Name one point in American history when this was so.
Posted by DeusExMachina (516 comments )
Link Flag
Politicians responsible for plundering free speech
One of the great historical steps forward in political freedom was
the removal of the government's right to control political
speech. Now we have the FEC promulgating regulations over
such speech. The American people accept this attack on rights
like compliant sheep. It isn't about so-called homeland security
or obscenity, it is simply a muzzle on opposition by incumbent
politicians -- and those who hope to become incumbents. The
names of every politician who supported this historic plundering
of rights should be emblazened on the memory of all free
people, but none more so than John McCain, Russ Feingold, and
Thad Cochran, the main sponsors, Olympia Snowe and Jim
Jeffords, who contributed a key amendments, and George Bush,
the president who signed it.

When Americans valued freedom this power grab would have
inspired riots.
Posted by nicmart (1829 comments )
Reply Link Flag
When?
Plundering of free speech? there has not been a single moment of
American history, either pre independence of post, where speech
has been unregulated, and the vast majority supported this.

"When Americans valued freedom this power grab would have
inspired riots."

Name one point in American history when this was so.
Posted by DeusExMachina (516 comments )
Link Flag
Regulation, therefore corruption.
I think politicians have got it all backwards. Their regulation invites corruption for those who understand the ins-and-outs of the law (see: lobbyists and congressmen) while supressing disfavorable speech by those who actually have something to say, sans pernicious agenda.

The internet is our last vestige of truly free speech in this country. We need to work toward anonymized and decentralized communication if we are to have any hope of technologically preventing governmental incursion of human rights. The government will never stop hammering away, if it takes a hundred years, they will still be at it. This is clearly proven when one compares our liberties and ability to protest today as compared to the founding times of the American Republic.

First: this may come as a suprise to some of you, but people are not idiots. In a country with free speech, people make up their own minds. Advertisements is not the mind-control of a mindless population that many of you feel it is. When you look at an advertisement for Budweiser, are you commanded to buy Budweiser? Of course not. It may affect how you judge Budweiser in future purchases, but it does not grapple your mind like some sort of telekinesis machine. Political advertisements, be they false or not, fall into the same category. People have the ability to rationally judge political advertisements and if they choose to believe a commercial (when was the last time you met someone who based all their judgements on commercials?) then so be it. In a free society, that's their perogative! Capital Hill has NO RIGHT regulating speech, I don't care what medium, what it is about, or when it occurs. That is liberty for you! Regulation directed against the people is, in EVERY case, an infringement of our rights as human beings born under a Framers Constitution! Do not muddle the waters with errant laws directed towards the 'common good.' Have any of you ever stopped and considered exactly what the 'common good' means? If you think about it, the common good assumes knowledge of other people need. Do you suppose your know precisely what your co-workers need from their perspective? Of course not. So how can we allow our politicians to make regulatory decisions for 250,000,000 people in their name?

It should be no suprise to anyone, the government has an institutional-wide, self-serving interest in regulation and centralization biased in favor of those in the seat of power. Your votes mean nothing when faced with an system whereby all members agree that some regulation is necessary for the 'betterment of all'.

To paraphrase Breton, we must not take liberties with liberty itself. Interpretation of our liberties, as written, is a stepping stone to the abolition of said liberties.
Posted by nhandler (79 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Regulation, therefore corruption.
I think politicians have got it all backwards. Their regulation invites corruption for those who understand the ins-and-outs of the law (see: lobbyists and congressmen) while supressing disfavorable speech by those who actually have something to say, sans pernicious agenda.

The internet is our last vestige of truly free speech in this country. We need to work toward anonymized and decentralized communication if we are to have any hope of technologically preventing governmental incursion of human rights. The government will never stop hammering away, if it takes a hundred years, they will still be at it. This is clearly proven when one compares our liberties and ability to protest today as compared to the founding times of the American Republic.

First: this may come as a suprise to some of you, but people are not idiots. In a country with free speech, people make up their own minds. Advertisements is not the mind-control of a mindless population that many of you feel it is. When you look at an advertisement for Budweiser, are you commanded to buy Budweiser? Of course not. It may affect how you judge Budweiser in future purchases, but it does not grapple your mind like some sort of telekinesis machine. Political advertisements, be they false or not, fall into the same category. People have the ability to rationally judge political advertisements and if they choose to believe a commercial (when was the last time you met someone who based all their judgements on commercials?) then so be it. In a free society, that's their perogative! Capital Hill has NO RIGHT regulating speech, I don't care what medium, what it is about, or when it occurs. That is liberty for you! Regulation directed against the people is, in EVERY case, an infringement of our rights as human beings born under a Framers Constitution! Do not muddle the waters with errant laws directed towards the 'common good.' Have any of you ever stopped and considered exactly what the 'common good' means? If you think about it, the common good assumes knowledge of other people need. Do you suppose your know precisely what your co-workers need from their perspective? Of course not. So how can we allow our politicians to make regulatory decisions for 250,000,000 people in their name?

It should be no suprise to anyone, the government has an institutional-wide, self-serving interest in regulation and centralization biased in favor of those in the seat of power. Your votes mean nothing when faced with an system whereby all members agree that some regulation is necessary for the 'betterment of all'.

To paraphrase Breton, we must not take liberties with liberty itself. Interpretation of our liberties, as written, is a stepping stone to the abolition of said liberties.
Posted by nhandler (79 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Alas
Alas, as Nelson would say Ha! Ha!

It's a pity that in the current term, if both the existing congressmen, and senators, when forced to take a test of comphrehension and understanding of the constitution and it's amendments, the failure rate would be in the high nineties!

Oh well, it is often said these days we are ruled over by idiots with hidden agenda's financed by payola, bribes and blackmail, to create the best laws that corrupt businessmen can buy!
Posted by heystoopid (691 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Alas
Alas, as Nelson would say Ha! Ha!

It's a pity that in the current term, if both the existing congressmen, and senators, when forced to take a test of comphrehension and understanding of the constitution and it's amendments, the failure rate would be in the high nineties!

Oh well, it is often said these days we are ruled over by idiots with hidden agenda's financed by payola, bribes and blackmail, to create the best laws that corrupt businessmen can buy!
Posted by heystoopid (691 comments )
Reply Link Flag
How I would program a diebold voting machine
If I knew that the software would never be looked at by any independent investigator, I would program in a specific pattern of votes that would open a back door in which an early voter could set the program to statistically alter the recording of votes during the day. Such backdoor entries are common in computer games and other software.
Posted by whagerbaumer (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
How I would program a diebold voting machine
If I knew that the software would never be looked at by any independent investigator, I would program in a specific pattern of votes that would open a back door in which an early voter could set the program to statistically alter the recording of votes during the day. Such backdoor entries are common in computer games and other software.
Posted by whagerbaumer (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Light Touch is Irrelevant
When it comes to speech, especially political speech, the fact that the government is regulating this with a purported "light touch" makes no difference. The only regulation of speech that our Constitution allows is NO regulation. It is written very plainly in the Constitution. How much more blunt could it be? Any politician or judge or Supreme Court justice who can't see this, is an imbecile who doesn't deserve his or her job.
Posted by steven.randolph (24 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Constitution
This is, of course not true. The Constitution is mute on the subject
of regulation.
Posted by DeusExMachina (516 comments )
Link Flag
Light Touch is Irrelevant
When it comes to speech, especially political speech, the fact that the government is regulating this with a purported "light touch" makes no difference. The only regulation of speech that our Constitution allows is NO regulation. It is written very plainly in the Constitution. How much more blunt could it be? Any politician or judge or Supreme Court justice who can't see this, is an imbecile who doesn't deserve his or her job.
Posted by steven.randolph (24 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Constitution
This is, of course not true. The Constitution is mute on the subject
of regulation.
Posted by DeusExMachina (516 comments )
Link Flag
on 500 E-mail Limit
As I'm reading though the new FEC rules, it seems that the disclaimer requirement for over 500 e-mails only applies to political committees, but not to individials or those in the newly defined corporate classification.

This would seem to mean that I could forward every e-mail sent out by my favorite federal campaigns to my private opt-in/opt-out list of over 20,000 people.

Am I understanding this correctly, or did I miss something here?
Posted by Stephen Gordon (5 comments )
Reply Link Flag
on 500 E-mail Limit
As I'm reading though the new FEC rules, it seems that the disclaimer requirement for over 500 e-mails only applies to political committees, but not to individials or those in the newly defined corporate classification.

This would seem to mean that I could forward every e-mail sent out by my favorite federal campaigns to my private opt-in/opt-out list of over 20,000 people.

Am I understanding this correctly, or did I miss something here?
Posted by Stephen Gordon (5 comments )
Reply Link Flag
What about Google ads?
In some cases, the disclaimer might have to be longer than the alloted advertising space. Clearly a disadvantage for candidates with really long names.
Posted by Stephen Gordon (5 comments )
Reply Link Flag
What about Google ads?
In some cases, the disclaimer might have to be longer than the alloted advertising space. Clearly a disadvantage for candidates with really long names.
Posted by Stephen Gordon (5 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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