Civil Liberties

Costly Links


Last October, the Internal Revenue Service announced it would consider new regulations for nonprofit organizations' use of the World Wide Web. The agency stressed that it "may conclude no further action is necessary," but it is clearly concerned that the Web sites of tax-exempt charities may violate anti-lobbying regulations simply by telling readers where unaffiliated lobbyists may be found.

The IRS' announcement specifically raises this question: "Does providing a hyperlink to the website of another organization that engages in lobbying activity constitute lobbying by a charitable organization?" It adds, "Does it make a difference if lobbying activity is on the specific webpage to which the charitable organization provides the hyperlink rather than elsewhere on the other organization's website?"

The IRS is also concerned that sending an e-mail or listserv communication might "constitute an appearance in the mass media" for tax purposes "if it is sent to more than 100,000 people and fewer than half of those people are members of the organization." (Under the tax code, communications to members of your own organization aren't considered lobbying.)

Worrying about the tax status of every Web page your group might link to would have a chilling effect, argues David Kopel of the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank based in Colorado. If the IRS decides "that links are tantamount to endorsement and support," he notes, "then our Web site would have to remove its links to numerous organizations which participate in political campaigns or which lobby," including Handgun Control Inc., the National Rifle Association, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

"For none of these groups are we aiming to promote their political/lobbying work," Kopel explains. "We link to those Web sites so that surfers from the Independence Institute Web site can obtain research materials."

The public comment period for the proposed regulations ended February 13. The IRS would not return phone calls seeking comment on the policy or on any comments yet received.