Bloggers plead for freedom from election laws

Federal Election Commission ponders four different ways of regulating bloggers. One option might be to do nothing at all.

WASHINGTON--Political bloggers on Tuesday urged federal regulators to keep the Internet as free as possible from campaign finance laws.

At a public hearing convened by the Federal Election Commission, both liberal and conservative political commentators lauded the brand of freewheeling online politicking that has characterized recent elections. The FEC is under a court order to extend campaign finance rules to the Internet, and the Democratic commissioners voted not to appeal.

Mike Krempasky, a conservative activist and contributor to the RedState.org blog, said he hopes the FEC will "ensure that no blogger, no amateur activist and no self-published pundit ever need consult with legal counsel." The FEC's 47-page proposed rules, which are not final, cover everything from candidate endorsements to fund-raising, bulk e-mail and paid advertisements.

Online politicking should not be subject to onerous federal rules, Democratic FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub said. "We're all agreed about that." But, Weintraub added, "What is the best way for us to regulate bloggers?"

By the end of Monday's hearing four different approaches of offering immunity to Web commentators emerged:

Say bloggers are journalists: RedState.org's Krempasky and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, editor of the liberal DailyKos.com site, argued that bloggers should be viewed as media organizations that have long been exempt from campaign finance laws.

"The commission identifies Slate.com, the Drudge Report and Salon.com as entities presumably deserving of the exemption," Krempasky said. "But if the commission grants credentials to these three, how can (it) deny the same privilege to AndrewSullivan.com, Joshua Marshall's TalkingPointsMemo.com or Kevin Aylward's Wizbang blog?"

Carol Darr of the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet warned that the so-called media exception would be abused. If the FEC veered in that direction, Darr said, you'd see "the campaign finance laws that we've operated under for 50 years just crumble." Larry Noble of the Center for Responsive Politics added: "I don't think you can just make everybody the press."

Set a dollar limit: Permit online political endorsements and a blog set up solely to aid a federal candidate--as long as the spending on hosting fees, computers and so on stays below a certain figure.

But what should that limit be? John Morris of the Center for Democracy & Technology suggested $500. FEC Chairman Scott Thomas, a Democrat, said $1,000 was "a little low" and "if Congress would help us on that, it would alleviate some of the concerns."

Say the Internet is radio: Radio and TV stations generally are immune from campaign finance laws unless their "facilities" are controlled by a political party or candidate.

One option, suggested by Republican Commissioner Michael Toner, would be to extend the same logic to say the "facilities" of Web servers should immunize political speech online.

That drew a sharp complaint from Morris, the lawyer with the Center for Democracy & Technology. "I assume that a printing press that prints on newsprint is not inherently news media," he said. "It's more who's using the printing press and what their purpose is."

Do nothing: The most incendiary approach, this would involve waiting until some unresolved legal disputes are answered or perhaps even ignoring the court order. "If the commission decides to regulate online political speech, it should only do so if a majority of commissioners conclude so independently, apart from the (court) decision, that the McCain-Feingold law requires the FEC to regulate the Internet," Toner said.

In a conversation with CNET News.com, Republican Commissioner Bradley Smith indicated that a hybrid approach might work. "I think the press exemption may be more helpful than people think," Smith said. "Republicans clearly believe in a broader press exemption than Democrats do."

The public hearing continues on Wednesday.

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