Saturday, April 02, 2005

Blogs and the FEC 

The Federal Election Commission has proposed a new set of regulations regarding use of the Internet and it’s relation to election campaigns. The Commission claims that it has no intention of attempting to restrict political speech on blogs, “if it is not coordinated with a political party or campaign.”

The claim is rather like saying, “We don’t care what you do, so long as it doesn’t bother or affect us.” Let’s examine, for a moment, the consequences of not specifically exempting blogs from regulation by giving press status to Internet journals and publications, but simply leaving this opening ajar.

Bloggers are an independent bunch, many link to campaign websites of candidates they endorse, parties they like and dislike, and fire both criticism and praise in tandem with others they agree with. The interconnectedness of the net is the flip side of the independence that comes with being able to write and create without a printing press, a distribution staff, and in many cases, without advertisers. Blogs are written wherever writers can reach a computer to post.

All of the above characteristics of independence are also ‘criteria’ by which several FEC Commissioners have publicly described blogs that might be considered to “coordinate with a political party or campaign.” Let’s take them one by one.

1— Linking to campaign sites. Count the number of blogs that you would consider to be worth reading that don’t at some point link to a campaign site, whether in criticism, praise, or endorsement. It’s rather like looking for a newspaper that doesn’t run a political ad or print an endorsement at election time.

2— Coordination with a campaign. Many bloggers are, like columnists, expressing their opinions and supporting political ideas, candidates, and parties, while running down those they disagree with. It reminds you of pamphleteers like Tom Paine, doesn’t it? Or perhaps it’s similar to many newspapers, or one particular cable news network today (which enjoys press status).

3— Posting from places other than one’s home. Guess how many bloggers never, ever, write at work, whether in their own office or at the company they work for, during lunch. Now imagine the rule being applied, as it already has in an FEC advisory opinion, that this activity (on ‘corporate’ equipment) constitutes an illegal corporate contribution to a campaign. How many bloggers do you think will have George Steinbrenner’s pull to get a Presidential pardon from that rap?

The FEC’s application of these specific ‘infractions’ of the McCain-Feingold campaign reform legislation would, of course, be sparse and irregular. One can barely imagine a Jeff Gannon going to prison for illegally aiding the President’s campaign, or having his pay and expenses charged to the President's campaign. It’s not, however, difficult to envision circumstances under which a particularly strident gadfly of the right or left, or a blogger too supportive of unpopular public figures getting caught in an expensive and legally difficult struggle with the federal government. Imagine the bureaucrats chasing the links, funding, and posting places of a blogger after their reporting an explosive truth or accusation, if his/her blog were linked to a specific campaign or party. It shouldn't be hard to see how this would inhibit the free and easy cacaphony of the blogosphere.

What the laissez-faire approach to blog regulation will probably lead to is not a huge ‘crackdown.’ More likely is an occasional iconic enforcement (in a very few instances) of the FEC’s regulatory power; leaving a chilling effect on the blog community will serve just as well as more draconian measures.

A far better way to separate political flackery from independent thought in cyberspace is to let blogs do what they already do so well, ferret out lies, perfidy, and shills, exposing them in other blogs for what they are. Let the reader decide whom to trust by experience. The concept that the government can do it better is as laughable as the phrase ending with, “…and we’re here to help.”

Whether in the end, the independence required to keep freedom of expression on the internet free will require legislative clarification of bloggers’ journalistic status or not, the first volley needs to be fired at the FEC’s “Notice of Proposed Rule-Making,” linked to below in March 31st’s posting here. There are less than 30 days left to comment in this phase of the process. Freedom ISN’T free, but the price of a few minutes on the phone, or the price of a stamp doesn’t seem too high.

See Contacting the FEC to send them your comments on the rule.

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