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.
Bloggers should log donations
During the last election, two South Dakota bloggers were paid by Sen. John Thunes campaign as he defeated former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle.
On the Democratic side, Howard Deans campaign paid Markos Moulitsas, a blogger who runs The Daily Kos blog, a consulting fee.
The Thune payment came to light when the campaign filed its campaign finance reports.
The Dean payments were disclosed by Moulitsas and by a former Dean campaign worker.
For some, those payments are disturbing. Using a Web site to endorse or praise a candidate in exchange for money seems to be a violation of the spirit of the commissions purpose.
Thats why some kind of regulation—spending limits and full, repeated disclosure are what the commission uses now—is in order.
“Excellent disclosure is nice but not necessarily sufficient, says Richard Hasen, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and himself editor of the ElectionLawBlog.
“If your goal is to prevent corruption and create equality, then disclosure is not enough.”
Whats next? A loose affiliation of bloggers and others interested in online activism is hoping to present FEC Chairman Scott Thomas with a letter outlining some of the changes they think are necessary.
Its a first step in getting the commission to amend its rules for the modern, online era and an interesting coda to an election season that saw the Internet used—voraciously by both sides—as a partisan weapon.
The coalition has managed to include former Deaniac Democrats, fiercely partisan conservatives and even a Libertarian.
“Its tri-partisan, quips one organizer, illustrating yet again, that politics can make strange bedfellows.
eWEEK.com Technology and Politics columnist Chris Nolan spent years chronicling the excesses of the dot-com era with incisive analysis leavened with a dash of humor. Before that, she covered politics and technology in D.C. You can read her musings on politics and technology every day in her Politics from Left to Right Weblog.