FEC releases draft rules for Internet political communication

After the passage of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill last year, one big topic of conversation was how the Federal Elections Commission would attempt to regulate political speech on the Internet. Questions abounded about how the FEC would look at blogs that linked to a candidate’s home page and "grassroots" political activity on the ‘Net. HangZhou Night Net

In advance of a meeting scheduled for March 27, the FEC has proposed a new set of rules (PDF) that will govern poitical activity on the Internet. Most notable is a provision that would treat Internet advertising in the exact same manner as any other campaign advertising. The FEC’s rules would place Internet ads in the same category as traditional print, radio, and TV ads, meaining that the funds used to pay for them would be regulated by federal campaign laws.

The FEC’s proposed new rules come in response to a federal court ruling that held that the FEC’s definition of "public communication" illegally excluded all Internet communications.

Aside from paid ads, all other online political speech would be unregulated under the proposed rules. Citing the Internet’s "minimal barriers to entry," the FEC believes that it is an important platform for citizens to voice their opinions about and support for political candidates.

Through this rulemaking, the Commission recognizes the Internet as a unique and evolving mode of mass communication and political speech that is distinct from other media in a manner that warrants a restrained regulatory approach. The Internet’s accessibility, low cost, and interactive features make it a popular choice for sending and receiving information. Unlike other forms of mass communication, the Internet has minimal barriers to entry, including its low cost and widespread accessibility. Whereas the general public can communicate through television or radio broadcasts and most other forms of mass communication only by paying substantial advertising fees, the vast majority of the general public who choose to communicate through the Internet can afford to do so.

In the draft of the proposed rules, the FEC spends a fair amount of time discussing the role of blogs in election campaigns. The new rules will leave blogs almost entirely unregulated. In particular, bloggers will not have to disclose if they are receiving payments from candidates or campaigns. The FEC’s reasoning is that such disclosure is unnecessary since campaigns and political committees are already required to report such payments on publicly available reports filed with the Commission.

Given the amount of concern over the possibility of heavy-handed regulation of online political speech and advertising, the FEC’s draft rules are a relief. Trying to monitor the Internet to ensure bloggers, candidates, and grassroots organization were complying witha byzantine set of regulations would have been a nightmare at best. The FEC’s chosen path of limiting its regulatory reach to online advertising looks as though it goes a long way towards ensuring that the Internet remains a "unique mode of mass communication and political speech."

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