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Free Net access for campaigns possible

Candidates for federal office may get free Internet access to keep voters up to date.

Federal office candidates, challengers, and incumbents may soon get free Internet access to keep their voters up to date in the same way they get free TV commercials under a bill introduced today by Representative Rick White (R-Washington), founder of the House Internet Caucus.

The bill, called the Internet Election Information Act, would replace current laws that have been on the books for 22 years and do not allow online services and ISPs to offer free services to political candidates. The bill is supported by Bill Thomas (R-California), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, which is expected to pass the bill onto the House floor in the next few weeks, Correll said. Thomas and Jennifer Dunn (R-Washington) co-sponsored White's bill.

"We're hoping this will encourage candidates for all offices to engage in more open debate by posting information on the Internet and use the Internet as a way to communicate with people," said Connie Correll, White's press secretary. "We need to update our current federal election laws to reflect these new technologies like the Internet so that we can use it in elections in a way that promotes more open debate and open democracy."

Last November, the Federal Election Commission turned down CompuServe's offer of free services to candidates, citing the laws that would have defined the offer as a gift from a corporation instead of public access to candidates. But in fact, the FEC wanted to approve the offer but was waiting for a legislator to revise the regulations, Correll said.

"The FEC thought it was a good idea but was not able to grant them that wish because there is no mention in the laws about the Net," Correll said. "We're trying to update those laws so that people like CompuServe could go forward and offer free Net access to anybody running for federal office."

Last week, White reintroduced a bill that would establish a formal congressional Internet Caucus in an effort to educate and members of Congress who are not familiar with the Net. He also plans to encourage members to set up sites if the Internet Election Information Act is enacted.

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