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Rules for political Web sites still unresolved

Election regulators fail to set clearer guidelines for political Web sites, leaving questions unanswered about whether Web sites must be reported as campaign contributions.

    Election regulators failed to set clearer guidelines for political Web sites today, leaving questions as to whether sites must be reported as campaign contributions.

    With the Net playing a wide-ranging role in politics, from being a forum for debates to a mechanism for campaign fund-raising, the Federal Election Commission has been deliberating how its existing rules for television and print advertisements apply to the global network.

    The FEC's meeting agenda today included several advisory opinions to address some of these issues, including an inquiry by Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush. The Republican front-runner wants to know if volunteer Web sites supporting his campaign, whether they are officially affiliated with him or not, need to be tallied as campaign contributions. If Web sites must be counted, it could push candidates over their spending limits.

    Although the commission decided today to send the opinion back to the drawing board, the draft to Bush seemed to be a departure from an opinion issued earlier this year; the latest opinion states that Web sites established by campaign volunteers aren't considered contributions.

    "If a volunteer for the campaign chooses to prepare a Web site supporting the campaign using his or her personal property at home, i.e., a home computer, that action would not be a contribution," the draft opinion to Bush states. "Further, the ongoing related costs, such as maintaining Internet service with a provider, that are part of the upkeep of a home-run Web site would also fall into this exception."

    Free speech advocates hope that the FEC reporting exemption will include all sites that include political opinions--not just those of official campaign volunteers.

    "[The draft opinion] is good news for the organized campaigns and their official 'volunteers,' but it leaves in legal limbo the person who does not wish to affiliate with a campaign as a 'volunteer"' but still wants to speak his or her political mind," Ari Schwartz of the Center for Democracy and Technology stated in an analysis of the draft today.

    "As matters now stand, the ordinary citizen who is not a 'volunteer' remains potentially subject to the campaign finance law, and his or her Web site may be subject to regulation," he added.

    Schwartz referred to a November 1998 opinion that lumped the Net in with rules for TV advertisements and campaign finance reporting. The opinion dealt with a Web site erected by Leo Smith of Suffield, Connecticut, who advocated the defeat of the Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Connecticut) and endorsed her opponent, Democratic candidate Charlotte Koskoff.

    In reference to Smith, the commission concluded that Web sites endorsing or soliciting funds for federal candidates are considered political advertisements and fall under the disclaimer and reporting requirements. Thus, sites such as Smith's would have to disclose who is behind the site and report expenditures for erecting the site if they exceed $250, including the cost of hardware and software to build and host the site.

    Public inquiry expected
    The conflicting opinions regarding volunteer Web sites underscore the need for clearer rules regarding Net campaigns. This need is not lost on the FEC. Commissioner David Mason today won approval to kick-start a public inquiry into how the Net is changing the political process and whether campaign rules should be amended to deal with the medium. The inquiry could lead to an official rule-making procedure.

    "The commissioners are apparently ready to tackle these issues," said FEC press officer Ron Harris. "The advisory opinions are only case specific, and they don't have the force of rule-making, but they are often referred to and used as precedents."

    In addition to campaign sites, the FEC also addressed nonpartisan political sites today.

    An opinion approved today concerns the nonprofit and nonpartisan Democracy Network (DNet), which has been holding online political debates since 1996 and provides an array of election materials and news. DNet was established by the League of Women Voters Education Fund and the Center for Governmental Studies.

    The FEC's opinion states that DNet's activities, such as distributing voter pamphlets, encouraging voter registration, and giving official candidates equal time during debates, fall under exceptions for the "general public."

    "The commission cautions, however, that there are certain circumstances that may result in concluding that there has been express advocacy by DNet," the opinion states.

    For example, the commission suggested that DNet could lose its exemption if it does not provide an accurate sampling of newspaper editorials endorsing candidates and therefore appears to endorse one candidate over another.

    But DNet claims that the concerns are unwarranted, as it gives every candidate a fair shake.

    "Candidates may directly post statements on the Web site in response to any perceived injustices on the Web site," DNet's attorney, Trevor Potter, stated in an October 20 letter to the FEC. "DNet rules are formally and completely neutral: Candidates all have a 1,000-word limit, and their position is solely dependent on their order of entry or update."

    The FEC's move this week follows other Net campaign decisions.

    In June, the commission updated its federal contribution matching rules to include credit card donations made via the Net. And in another opinion regarding the Secretary of State for Minnesota's Web site, the FEC concluded that nonpartisan Web sites that link to candidate sites do not have to report expenditures.