Friday, March 11, 2005

FEC Regulation and Blogs, Not So Perfect Together 

Regulation of bloggers? ….OK, OK, now that you’ve stopped laughing, I hope you check the link, because it’s coming. And soon.

The Federal Election Commission has been ordered by U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly to come up with regulations extending McCain-Feingold to the internet. It’s not a question of whether there will be regulations, but what they will be.

A preview of at least some of the Commission’s thinking by Commissioner David Mason at the Politics Online Conference here in Washington yesterday indicated that their proposals could have the effect of a crackdown on bloggers. Commissioner Bradley Smith has previously been quoted along the same lines, but Mason made it clear that the FEC is almost ready to act.

Here’s the thing— if you engage in political activity in support of a candidate or candidates and you are not regarded as a journalist or a private person, you could well be subject to McCain Feingold. Well, you say, I’m a journalist. Maybe not in the way the FEC wants to define journalism. OK, you say, I’m a private person. Not if you blog from the office, they say, you’re using corporate or business equipment to do it, they say.

But it’s a free speech issue, you say. Well, the FEC proposal, which will be issued in less than a month, allows you to comment on the issue. That’s free. There will be a 30-day comment period once they issue the “Notice of Proposed Rule-Making.” Then there will be hearings.

The Commission is evenly divided among Republicans and Democrats and has voted not to appeal the Judge’s ruling, but to press ahead with the rule-making. Thoughts about what that rule may be are varied, but one thing should be clear: this ruling will have a dramatic effect on the blogosphere.

If the experience of the FCC rulings on media conglomeration last year are to be used as historical background, both the Left and the Right have a stake in keeping participatory democracy as open as possible and both have reason to unite over keeping the FEC off the backs of bloggers and citizens who read them.

William Greene, founder of RightMarch.com, a conservative blog, told the Big Diamond yesterday that he sees this as a bipartisan issue. “Bloggers on the Left don’t see this as bipartisan, but we do. This is the natural consequence of McCain-Feingold.”

Whether or not one supports McCain-Feingold, the regulation of blogs and their political activity is a point on which there can be much agreement in cyberspace. Keeping democratic participation through the internet alive and well is vital. The discussion and organizing around this must begin to reach critical mass quickly, because the gears of the FEC are turning fast.

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