June 21, 2005

The debate over regulating the internet

Next week, the Federal Election Commission will hold two days of public hearings to consider possible regulations for online campaigning.

The reason for the hearings originated with a September 2004 U.S. District Court ruling (Shays v. FEC) that tossed out the agency’s hands-off-the-Net interpretation of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. Online campaign communications, said the court, cannot be completely unregulated; paid political advertising on the web, especially when it involves coordination among certain players, cannot proceed without government limits and requirements. On April 4 of this year, the FEC issued a Notice of Public Rulemaking (NPRM 2005-10) containing dozens of propositions and proposals about online campaigning. The agency received over 800 comments, and will hear testimony from 22 people in public hearings on June 28 and 29.

A flash point of controversy has developed around the question of exempting political bloggers from regulation on the pretext that they qualify as news media entities. Currently, news organizations in broadcast and print can spend freely on campaign coverage, coordinate it with campaigners, and advertise it without end. But if bloggers receive the same media exemption, what would stop every corporation, union, wealthy individual, non-U.S. citizen, and other suspect sources of campaign cash from setting up their own blogs to skirt the regulatory regime? “So what if they did?” runs the counter-argument. The beauty of the internet is that no one can monopolize a communications route to an electoral audience. Unlike broadcast and print, there is always room for more voices online, and many ways for potential voters to find and hear them.

A convenient guide to some of the meatier comments may be found here.