New Web-Ad Law Stirs Tempest in a Blogging Teacup

Opinion: San Francisco legislation designed to regulate third-party "issue" ads started some rumors that should have been put to rest sooner.

A firestorm of indignation lit up the string of independent Web sites known collectively as the "blogosphere" this weekend, creating a storm of e-mail and name-calling for a San Francisco City official who isnt even that well known in her native city.

Its a lesson for the age of truly instant communication. One that can be applied not just to politics but to pretty much any discussion or comment that takes place on Weblogs. So its worth following this controversy for the lessons it can teach all sides—bloggers, their readers and the folks they often talk about—about information and how fast it moves these days.

It all started last Friday when a political consultant from a Washington firm posted a warning about the San Francisco legislation at the Personal Democracy Forum site. (Disclaimer: I am a contributing editor at PDF and, in response, I posted my own, somewhat different, take on the issue).

"San Francisco May Regulate Blogging," said the post. It warned that sites which received more than 500 "hits" could be forced to register with the city, and anyone who spent more than $1,000 in the 90 days before the citys elections would have to disclose that expenditure with the San Franciscos elections commission.

San Francisco Supervisor Sophie Maxwell introduced the legislation, which, as originally drafted, was ambiguous about who would be covered.

The law was aimed at policing on- and offline spending by third parties on behalf of candidates in what are known as "issue" ads: spots or flyers that ask leading questions or raise suspicions but fall short of endorsing a position or candidate. That much was made clear in the public hearing held on the issue on Tuesday. But by then, it was almost too late.

Because, after the PDF post appeared, it was picked up on Sunday by, the powerful nerd-news site. Glenn Reynolds, who runs Instapundit, a site that rivals Slashdots popularity with the political crowd, also echoed the PDF headline: San Francisco was going to regulate bloggers.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick here to read about AOLs new RED Blogs service for teens.

The ironies here are thick. First, San Francisco supervisors have talked—seriously and earnestly—about giving press credentials to bloggers saying that they are, indeed, a legitimate source of news and information.

One member of the board even runs his own (city-sponsored) site. They may not be completely on top of things tech, as the original legislation proved, but they cant be ridiculed as totally clueless.

So, when supervisors met on Tuesday, Maxwell stood up and said the legislation wasnt intended to cover bloggers since they are exempt as news organizations.

What was really going on here? Well, mostly local politics. But it was local politics played using the Internet as a megaphone; something were going to see lots more of in the future.

Supervisors were reacting to a series of very nasty "issue" ads that had been mailed out during the last election, paid for by anonymous third parties who didnt have to disclose their expenses. The citys political consultants—the folks who organize and run campaigns—dont like these new regulations. Deliberately or not, they riled up the blogosphere.

Were bloggers right to get up in arms about the threat to their free speech rights? Of course they were. The law, as it was drafted, wasnt clear at all. It still isnt. Were the consultants right to get bloggers riled up? Well, yes. This is politics, after all, and you take your friends where you find them.

On top of that, the issue of how online writing fits into political campaigns and the funding of those campaigns is now before the Federal Elections Commission and the courts. Its worthy of discussion at all levels of government.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick here to read Chris Nolans opinion on whether the FCC should regulate blogs as they relate to political campaigns.

So who erred in this little comedy of misunderstanding? Well, the supervisors, by drafting a dumb and poorly written law. Bloggers who didnt read the legislation or take into account the exemption or the ambiguity of the proposed law did their share.

So did Maxwells office, which let far too much time pass—a full day, almost—before it crafted a response to its critics. An informative post on PDFs site or at Slashdot from Maxwells office would have gone a long way toward lowering the volume. Those messages did get sent—via e-mail—but not until late Monday.

Lessons learned? Dont believe everything you read. And when you see something thats plain wrong, correct it. Fast. This isnt just politics; this is good customer service and corporate relations.

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