Regulating Bloggers

Free speech on the Web.

The liberal blog Daily Kos and its conservative counterpart RedState don’t agree on much, but last March they joined virtual hands to protect the Internet from the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

The agency had originally concluded that the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act’s rules pertaining to “public communications” had been intended to apply to media such as television, where the volume of your voice is closely linked to the size of your wallet, and not to the Internet. But a 2004 district court ruling required the agency to develop specific rules for the Net, raising the possibility that bloggers could be subject to onerous spending restrictions, disclosure requirements, and FEC investigations. Liberal, conservative, and libertarian bloggers joined in protest.

Most of the protesters seemed satisfied at the end of March, when the FEC unanimously approved new rules for cyberspace, clarifying that paid ads on third-party Web sites would be subject to campaign-finance restrictions but exempting most other Internet speech from such rules. But former FEC Commissioner Bradley Smith argues that it would be better to codify the Net exemption in statute rather than let the commission rely on its own rulemaking. “The ‘reform community’ was willing to give up almost anything to preserve the principle that the FEC could regulate the Internet, that no form of political speech would remain unregulated,” says Smith. The current rules may give online speech wide latitude, he warns, but now the regulators have “got their nose in the tent.”

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