Bradley Smith says that the freewheeling days of political blogging and online punditry are over.
In just a few months, he warns, bloggers and news organizations could risk the wrath of the federal government if they improperly link to a campaign’s Web site. Even forwarding a political candidate’s press release to a mailing list, depending on the details, could be punished by fines.
Smith should know. He’s one of the six commissioners at the Federal Election Commission, which is beginning the perilous process of extending a controversial 2002 campaign finance law to the Internet.
In 2002, the FEC exempted the Internet by a 4-2 vote, but U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly last fall overturned that decision. “The commission’s exclusion of Internet communications from the coordinated communications regulation severely undermines” the campaign finance law’s purposes, Kollar-Kotelly wrote.
Smith and the other two Republican commissioners wanted to appeal the Internet-related sections. But because they couldn’t get the three Democrats to go along with them, what Smith describes as a “bizarre” regulatory process now is under way.
I have been expecting this since the election. It was obvious to me that the greater the extent of the internet’s influence on the campaigns, the less likely it would be that the government would leave things as they are. Right now, it’s a partisan issue – the Republicans want regulation, because the Democrats were able to correctly assess the value of the online community during the campaign and use it to their advantage in ways the Republicans did not.
However, if the shoe had been on the other foot, do not think for a moment that the Democrats would just shrug and say “c’est la guerre.” This is something that I think was inevitable, because of campaign finance laws. And perhaps that is as it should be, up to a point. There needs to be transparency when it comes to who is funding what for which campaign and the role the internet plays. But the idea of the Republican FEC and Congress hammering this out without input from the online community makes my blood run cold. Because what we’re apt to get in the way of regulations are really just another set of muzzles on free speech. This could be the case for no other reason than the frustration that bloggers and others could face in trying stay within the parameters of what threaten to be a set of rules that are Byzantine in their complexity.
It would be lovely if Howard Dean jumped into this situation, since he understands the internet as well or better than anyone else in either party. It would be reassuring, to me, if he was involved with educating and directing the Congressional Democrats on this issue. Right now, it appears however, that no one has the bloggers’ backs. Everyone is too busy trying to stab each other in the back for that, bloggers included.