Net users favor hands-off approach to politics

After soliciting comment from the Internet audience at large, the Federal Election Commission receives a nearly unanimous appeal: Don't mess with the Net.

3 min read
Don't mess with the Net. That's the advice the online public gave to the Federal Election Commission when it sought comments on regulating Internet campaigning.

Four months ago, the agency asked for feedback on what it should do about the burgeoning political activity online. Yesterday, the comments were released.

About 30 groups sent letters or faxes, and slightly fewer than 1,300 people sent emails. Most opposed regulation, while a minority suggested monitoring political parties and their campaigns.

"The online comments weren't surprising given the culture of the Internet," FEC Commissioner David M. Mason said. "What's notable is that even groups like Common Cause and Democracy 21, which have vigorously supported campaign finance reform, were somewhat relaxed about the issue in the Internet context."

Now the agency must decide what to do, if anything. Mason said it could take at least a year to come up with a proposed set of guidelines.

Inexpensive Internet campaigning has created a conflict for the FEC, a six-member board that regulates federal political activity. On the one hand it wants to encourage voter participation, but on the other it needs to keep online campaign expenditures in check.

Now more than ever voters are turning to the Web to tout their opinions about candidates, send emails to their representatives, and engage in chat room debates about political agendas.

Candidates, too, are taking advantage of the Internet's broad appeal. Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley, for instance, has raised more than $1.3 million in online contributions since his Web site launched December 1998, a Bradley campaign representative said last week.

Until now, the FEC had been issuing advisory opinions as Internet-related campaign problems arose.

Some have criticized the commission for taking a severe approach in regulating political activity by individuals online, but lately the opinions have taken a warmer stance toward the Net.

Perhaps the most controversial opinion was issued in 1998 against Connecticut voter Leo Smith, who built a Web site supporting a congressional candidate. Smith was told his site should be treated as a campaign expenditure because it directed viewers to vote for a particular candidate; he also was told that the cost of his computer should be included as part of the total expenditure.

Fearing that more such opinions would strike down individual participation, many groups and organizations, including America Online and the American Civil Liberties Union, responded to the FEC's recent request for comment.

In a 33-page letter, one of the longest submitted to the commission, AOL urged the FEC to provide "a safe harbor for individual activity."

"We believe the Internet is going to be established as a place for political participation and individual political engagement," George Vradenburg, AOL's general counsel, said in an interview. "We wanted to make sure that the FEC fosters the Internet as a place for political participation."

Many of the comments echoed AOL's plea, but Mason said some also pleaded to put a stop to spamming.

"It was amusing because we didn't ask for comments about spamming," Mason said. "It goes to show that users hate spamming more than they hate the government."

Chuckles aside, Mason said the commission could someday be called to address regulating unsolicited emails from political groups. For now, however, he said the FEC has its hands full dealing with this latest inquiry about Internet campaigning.