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Online politicking receives temporary reprieve

update FEC tentatively rules out crackdown on political bloggers, even proposes some be treated as journalists.

Political bloggers would continue to be exempt from most campaign finance laws, according to highly anticipated rules that federal regulators released Wednesday.

The Federal Election Commission also proposed that online-only news outlets and even individual bloggers should be treated as legitimate journalists and thus be immune from laws that could count their political endorsements as campaign contributions.

The 47-page outline of proposed rules (click here for PDF file) takes a cautious approach to the explosive question of how Web sites and e-mail should be regulated, with the FEC saying throughout that its conclusions are only tentative ones and inviting public comment. The comment process is expected to be approved by the agency at its meeting Thursday.

Ever since FEC Commissioner Bradley Smith warned of the possibility of a crackdown on bloggers in an interview with CNET News.com in early March, politicians and political junkies have been closely following the commission's deliberations. While one senator has proposed a near-complete inoculation of the Internet, some of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act's original sponsors have of "creating loopholes" through insufficiently aggressive regulations.

"These proposals are intended to ensure that political committees properly finance and disclose their Internet communications, without impeding individual citizens from using the Internet to speak freely regarding candidates and elections," the FEC said in a statement.

The initial reaction from bloggers was cautiously positive. "The blogosphere has indeed flexed its muscles here, and we've been heard," said a posting on the conservative-leaning Democracy-Project.com.

The FEC's proposed regulations also say:

• Political spam must be labeled, a relaxation of a current regulation that requires disclaimers when more than 500 bulk messages endorse or attack a political candidate. Now only such e-mail sent to addresses purchased "through a commercial transaction" must sport disclaimers.

• Linking to a campaign's Web site will not be counted as an "expenditure" that could trigger campaign finance law unless money changes hands. Also exempt are "distributing banner messages" and "blogging."

• Someone simply running their own Web site from their own computer or hosted on a service like Blogger.com does "not make a contribution or expenditure" that must be reported as a campaign contribution.

• Forwarding e-mail from a political candidate "would not constitute republication of campaign materials," which could have triggered another complex section of campaign finance law.

In one area, the FEC seems unsure about how to proceed and asks for input from Internet users. The agency notes that online-only news sites such as Salon.com, Slate.com and DrudgeReport.com have no print equivalent. But, the FEC asks, should individual bloggers qualify? What if a blogger receives payment from a political campaign? And "should bloggers' activity be considered commentary or editorializing, or news story activity?"

After Smith's interview appeared, an unusual alliance of conservatives, libertarians and liberals coalesced around the idea of heading off overly intrusive government regulation. An online petition has garnered thousands of electronic signatures, and the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday wrote in an editorial that "this was always going to be the end result of a law that naively believed it could ban money from politics."

Michael Bassik, a self-described Democrat who co-created the online petition, was cautiously enthusiastic about the FEC's draft rules. "It appears as though the FEC did a good job of listening to those in the online community in the past few weeks and seems to have incorporated the comments that individual bloggers and journalists have voiced in the past few weeks," Bassik said late Wednesday.

Some bloggers have created a "free speech pledge" endorsing civil disobedience if the government eventually goes too far, while some Democratic bloggers have fretted that the three Democratic members of the FEC could be blamed for choosing not to appeal a federal court decision from last year that ordered the commission to revisit its regulations.

In 2002, the FEC largely exempted the Internet from campaign finance laws by a 4-2 vote, but U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly last fall overturned that decision. "The commission's exclusion of Internet communications from the coordinated communications regulation severely undermines" the campaign finance law's purposes, Kollar-Kotelly wrote.

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