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Equal time on the Net

A House bill would require those that dole out free Net access to give "equal time" to all candidates running for an office.

Internet service providers won't be able to play favorites when offering free Net access to candidates, if a bill introduced in Congress last week becomes law.

House Bill 653 would amend the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 to require ISPs, libraries and educational institutions that dole out free Net access to one candidate to give "equal time" to all other candidates running for the same office.

Led by Internet Caucus cofounder Rep. Rick White (R-Washington), the act would apply a long-standing provision for television stations to the Net--the latest example of governmental attempts to regulate the Internet like other mediums.

The free Net time can be used to distribute election or candidate materials, or position papers; to respond to questions, solicit lawful contributions and hold forums on the Net, if the service already permits its system to be used for such purposes.

"The Internet and other interactive computer services did not exist when the laws that currently govern Federal elections were enacted, and these services represent a new medium where voters can obtain meaningful and substantive information about issues and candidates," the bill states.

"The Internet Election Information Act of 1997" also encourages candidates to take advantage of the possible freebie: "For the purposes of enhancing public debate and awareness, candidates for Federal office should be encouraged to provide voters with meaningful and substantive information about their candidacy and important public policy issues."