Rules Weighed for Online Political Campaigning

Congress and the Federal Election Commission are considering new regulations to govern campaigning on the Internet. Some say the Internet is the last bastion of free speech and unfettered democracy in political fundraising. Others says it's only a matter of time before those blocked from direct involvement in elections set up shop on the Internet.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The federal election commission is struggling to decide whether bloggers in Internet political ads should come under the limits of federal election laws. The commission thought it had settled that question by giving the Internet a total exemption, but it was overruled last year by a federal judge. So the question of Internet regulation is still open, and Congress may step in.

NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY reporting:

Here's how quickly the worldwide web has affected American politics. When Congress wrote the last campaign finance law five years ago, it didn't even mention the Internet. Now, no discussion of politics is complete unless the on-line players are included.

One of the most influential progressive blogs is MyDD, for My Direct Democracy. Its founder is activist and consultant Jerome Armstrong. Like many other bloggers, he doesn't think the old campaign finance rules work for the blogosphere.

Mr. JEROME ARMSTRONG (founder of My Direct Democracy web blog): when I look out there what I see is more and more participation from more and more voices. And that's what I believe is--democracy is all about.

Ms. ALLISON HAYWARD (The Skeptic's Eye blog author): There's really, you know, there's plenty of room in the pool. Jump on in, the water's fine.

OVERBY: That's conservative blogger, Allison Hayward, who writes The Skeptic's Eye. She's been a Washington campaign finance lawyer, now she's blogging away from her home in northern Virginia.

She's on the same side as her progressive counterpart, and she says bloggers see a new political reality dawning.

Ms. HAYWARD: Even the very, very successful ones, the very influential ones, understand that blogging is the closest thing that most of us have seen, in political activity, to a meritocracy--where your argument is really key, rather than the amount of money that you have at your disposal or the kinds of connections you have.

OVERBY: Money and connections, those pillars of old-style politics. In fact, big money from corporations and unions was shut out of federal campaigns by the 2002 campaign finance law.

But here's the other element in the battle over Internet regulation. While the election commission plans to vote Monday, later next week, the House is set to vote on a bill to make permanent the blanket exemption; the one the federal judge rejected last year.

Good Government groups are lobbying against that bill. Common Cause lobbyist Celia Wexler says the issue is political advertising, not bloggers.

Ms. CELIA WEXLER (Common Cause lobbyist): A political ad that's on WashingtonPost.com is going to be treated differently than a political ad that runs in the Washington Post. The concern is that this unregulated money that would come from corporations and other special interests would pay for that ad.

OVERBY: She points out that campaigns spent $14 million dollars on Internet advertising in 2004, a pittance compared to their other spending, but a lot for a new and fast-growing medium.

There's another piece of legislation also in play from a think tank called The Center for Technology and Democracy. It avoids the big money loophole and it explicitly protects most bloggers.

Jerome Armstrong says the advocates of regulation should just wait.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: You know I really wish they would point to something that is wrong out there, that is happening. The situation has gone awry and it needs reform. It's not like this is hypothetical and it might happen so we better prepare for it.

OVERBY: And in another measure of the bloggers' clout, the top priority in Congress seems to be not offending them.

Ms. HAYWARD: Congress right now seems to be having, I would characterize it as a bit of a failure of will, here.

OVERBY: Again, blogger Allison Hayward, of the Skeptic's Eye.

Ms. HAYWARD: I think a lot of congressmen would like the FCC to do something that would get everyone to calm down a little bit so that they can move on to other things.

OVERBY: Insiders speculate that the election commission might be able to nail down a broad compromise. That would leave quite a few details unresolved, but it would also get Congress off the hook.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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