Internet Covered by Campaign Finance Laws
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Political bloggers and other online activists have received an official blessing in Washington. The federal election commission says they will be exempt from campaign finance laws.
But later this week, these new-style political players might still find themselves dragged into an old-fashioned fight on Capital Hill. NPR's Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY reporting:
The question has been argued for months: should online politicking be regulated the same way traditional politicking is, with contribution limits and mandatory donor disclosure? Or is the cyber world so fundamentally different that the old rules don't apply?
Yesterday, the federal election commission went with the new technology and threw aside the old rules. All six commissioners voted for a regulation that gives bloggers their freedom, while regulating traditional political practices that migrate to the Internet, paid advertising, for example.
Democratic commissioner Ellen Weintraub.
Ms. ELLEN WEINTRAUB (Democratic commissioner): The Internet really is a special case in politics. We have yet to begin to tap its potential, and this agency should not get in its way.
OVERBY: The commission has been under court-order to act.
In 2002, the commissioners proposed completely deregulating Internet politics, but that was rejected by a federal judge. As the commission tackled the question again, progressive and conservative bloggers joined forces to avoid regulation. And yesterday they declared victory.
Conservative Allison Hayward writes at SkepticsEye.com.
Ms. ALLISON HAYWARD (author of skepticseye.com): I'm pleased. I think that there may be cases at the edges where we're not quite sure how certain activity will be treated, but overall I think it gives bloggers the protection they need while getting at some of the paid advertising issues that other people were concerned about.
OVERBY: Lawyer Adam Bonin represents three progressive bloggers: Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, of the Daily Kos, Duncan Black, of Atrios, and Matt Stoller, of MyDD.
Mr. ADAM BONIN (Attorney, Cozen O'Connor): It levels the difference between the rich and poor, gives everybody a voice, and allows all citizens an opportunity influence the process.
OVERBY: But yesterday's FEC decision doesn't mean the battle is over.
Republican commissioner Hans von Spakovsky voted for the regulation, but he said Congress should go further.
Mr. HANS VON SPAKOVSKY (Republican commissioner): I urge Congress to act. To pass the Henserling Bill, HR 1606, to overturn the court decision and to basically ratify the prior regulation issued by the FEC.
OVERBY: Von Spakovsky was referring to a Bill introduced by Texas Republican Jeb Henserling which seeks to create a blanket exemption for all internet politicking. House leaders pulled that Bill from the calendar earlier this month, now it's back on for Thursday.
But the commission's new, unanimous vote may reframe the debate. Now that bloggers are protected, the House debate may focus on something else entirely. That would be the Bill's language that removes online political ads from federal regulation.
Fred Wertheimer is a long-time advocate for tighter controls on political money. He says that under the new rules, state political parties will become conduits for new streams of cash.
Mr. FRED WERTHEIMER (President and CEO of Democracy 21): I find it amazing that, with the country deeply concerned about the corruption scandals in Washington, that members of the House would be thinking about legislation whose only purpose now is to allow huge corrupting contributions to be used by political parties and federal candidates.
OVERBY: Spokesman for the House leadership said Henserling's Bill will stay on the schedule.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.