April 13, 2005 3:04 PM PDT

New House bill protects political bloggers

Political bloggers and other online commentators are gaining more support in the U.S. Congress.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling, a Texas Republican, introduced a bill Wednesday that would prevent the federal government from extending campaign finance laws to the Internet.

The bill mirrors a companion measure in the Senate that was introduced last month by Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat. Both would effectively rewrite a 2002 campaign finance law popularly known as McCain-Feingold in a way that would bar the Federal Election Commission from regulating political Web sites.

Bloggers beware:

As the Federal Election Commission takes its first steps to shape campaign rules for the blog era, FEC Commissioner Bradley Smith warned that proposed rules present unanswered questions for bloggers:

  • The draft rules provide some protections for "individual" political commentators. But what if a group of people jointly publish a blog? "If one of the bloggers received payment for an activity, would it turn the group into a political committee" subject to campaign finance regulation, Smith asked. He pointed to the academic-leaning Volokh Conspiracy blog, which has multiple contributors.
  • Some blogs, such as Daily Kos, are published by a corporation. If they endorse candidates, they must be approved by the FEC as legitimate news organizations or run afoul of the law, Smith warned. If such a site "did not qualify for the press exemption, the mere fact that they're unpaid does not get them out from under the regulation."
  • The FEC's proposed regulations talk about "announcements placed for a fee on another entity's Web site." Smith asked: What if those are pop-up political ads generated by a software program such as Claria's "adware," instead of by a Web browser? Should the FEC target Claria, the advertiser or the Web site that happens to be in the background?
  • "Within the next 60 days, the FEC is expected to finalize rules and regulations that could squash not only free speech and political activism, but could well impede innovation and technology--unless Congress acts now," Hensarling wrote in a letter to his colleagues that his spokesman said would be circulated Thursday.

    The Hensarling and Reid bills represent a bipartisan departure from Congress' earlier decision to sweep the Internet into the McCain-Feingold law. In a recent interview with CNET News.com, FEC Commissioner Bradley Smith warned that the law could regulate everything from Web links to political campaigns to a party activist who forwards e-mail from a political candidate.

    During the debate over McCain-Feingold, Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, offered an amendment saying that "none of the limitations, prohibitions or reporting requirements of this act shall apply to any activity carried out through the use of the Internet." But the House of Representatives rejected the measure by a 160-268 vote, with only five Democrats voting for it.

    The FEC voted on March 24 to go forward with its Internet regulations, which are now required by a federal court order. The public has 60 days to comment on the proposed regulations, which can be done through e-mail to Internet@fec.gov, and a public hearing is scheduled for June 28.

    Mike Krempasky, a contributor to conservative Web site RedState.org, applauded the Hensarling bill. "I've already heard from some liberal colleagues in the blogosphere, and we're going to push this bill--and hard," he wrote Wednesday.

     

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