Feds get set for Net rules

FEC takes first steps to shape campaign rules for the blog era as Web partisans keep a watchful eye.

WASHINGTON--The Federal Election Commission has begun the perilous process of including political blogs and Web sites in campaign finance rules that were created long before the Internet became such a powerful political tool.

FEC commissioners voted 5-1 on Thursday to approve a procedure that is expected to end with a final set of Internet rules--governing everything from whether bloggers are journalists to bulk political e-mail--in place by the end of the year.

"What we're arguing about is how much freedom people are going to lose on the Internet," said FEC Commissioner David Mason, a Republican. "If we do it right, they won't lose much freedom."

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What's new:
The FEC has taken its first steps to shape campaign rules for the blog era.

Bottom line:
The final set of Internet rules could govern everything from whether bloggers are journalists to bulk political e-mail.

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The FEC is in the unusual position of being required to extend the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) because of a federal judge's order last fall. The three Republican commissioners had tried to persuade their three Democratic colleagues to appeal U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly's decision (click for PDF) to include the Internet, but the Democrats refused.

Ever since FEC Commissioner Bradley Smith, a Republican, warned of the possibility of an impending Internet crackdown in an interview with CNET News.com in early March, an army of bloggers has mobilized to oppose intrusive regulations, and members of Congress have warned the commission that its actions are being closely watched.

As a result, the Democratic commissioners on Thursday attempted to play down the significance of their opposition to an appeal a few months earlier. "We are not the speech police," said FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat. "The FEC does not tell private citizens what they can or can't say on the Internet or elsewhere."

FEC Commissioner Danny McDonald, another Democrat, said: "I've never seen so much ado about nothing at this stage of the process."

Mixed reaction to rules
Among bloggers and political commentators, the reaction to the FEC's proposed regulations (click for PDF) was mixed.

Mike Krempasky, a contributor to conservative Web site RedState.org who attended the meeting, said: "Don't believe Ellen Weintraub when she repeats her mantra of 'Bloggers, chill out!'"

Krempasky said the draft rules, if finalized, would create a "regulatory minefield" because they give individuals greater leeway than corporations. But a growing number of bloggers are incorporating to gain protection from civil suits, he said, which means they could be prohibited from political activities unless they qualify as legitimate journalists.

A section of current law known as the "media exemption" says

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