As the Net has become a natural extension for campaign debates, fund-raising, and promoting candidates' agendas, the Federal Election Commission has been deliberating how its existing rules for television and print advertisements apply to the global network.
Through advisory opinions, the FEC is trying to clear some of the murkiness for political Web sites when its comes to disclosure and finance reporting. In a closely watched proceeding, the commission yesterday said that sites started by known campaign volunteers aren't considered donations that have to be reported by candidates.
The opinion was a response to an inquiry by Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, who wanted to know whether volunteer Web sites supporting his campaign needed to be tallied as campaign contributions, which could have pushed him over his spending limit.
What the opinion didn't address, however, is how to deal with sites created by individuals who have no connection to a campaign.
"What about the people who aren't volunteers--who want to speak their mind?" said Jim Dempsey, senior staff counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology. "If people like that advocate the election or defeat of a candidate for federal office, they may still be engaging in an independent expenditure that they have to report. That is our complaint; those people are still left guessing."
The Bush advisory is a departure from a November 1998 opinion that lumped the Net 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 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.
The FEC has called for public comment on a wide range of Web campaign issues, such as what type of sites will fall under news reporting exemptions, which could lead to a more formal rulemaking procedure that would apply broadly across the Net.