Webloggers Influence Causes A Need for Regulation

Opinion: Their effect on political campaigns can't go unmentioned or unnoticed by the FEC.

The hue and cry over whether the Federal Election Commission can—or should—"regulate" Webloggers is a much more complicated and politically partisan argument than it looks at first glance.

Thats not to say the threat isnt real. A close reading of the commissions regulation shows that yes, indeed, the exemption held by traditional media outlets needs to be extended to the online world.

Its one more rung on the ladder of adjusting laws to the new, networked society.

But the threat has been exaggerated to score political points.

It began about a week ago when Federal Election Commissioner Bradley Smith gave an interview to CNET suggesting that a court-ordered review and revision of FEC regulations could mean that bloggers would be subject to the commissions disclosure and spending rules.

Now, Smith is a Republican and like many members of his party doesnt like the laws as they currently exist.

Republicans, particularly conservative activists, have argued with some limited success that campaign finance laws amount to a restraint on free speech since they keep supporters from theoretically doing—or spending—as much as theyd like on behalf of their favored candidate.

Democrats are a bit less worried about regulating political speech through spending limits.

Until this most recent election cycle, Democrats were almost always out-spent by their Republican rivals.

For that reason alone, Democrats have generally supported slightly stronger—but not rigorous—enforcement of the campaign finance law.

Its silly to think Smiths warnings will all come to pass and that the FEC will attempt to figure out, for instance, the actual monetary "value" to a campaign of a hyperlink from a blogger or anyone else for that matter.

And the FEC is unlikely to craft brand spanking new regulations for online advertising, completely different from those that already cover hardcopy counterparts.

But it is looking into how bloggers are compensated by campaigns as part of an exploration into how campaigns coordinate their messages with blogs or other outside organizations.

At this point, a bit of disclosure on my side is in order. Since I run a political Web site, these rules could affect how I run my business.

And many of the people I have spoken to for this column about the FEC, its efforts and the efforts to amend the commissions rules have purchased ads on my site or provided the site with the very kind of support the commission may be looking at: hyperlinks and referrals.

Additionally, when my site was started it was partly—and temporarily—financed by a local, San Francisco organization.

Questions about where bloggers fit in the scheme of things as journalists, campaign consultants or just fervent freelance supporters are bedeviling the FEC right now.

The Internet came into its own as a campaign tool in this last election. And in two instances, one from each side of the political aisle, online writing was supported by campaign cash.

Next Page: Bloggers should log donations.