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Bloggers, chill out already!

Federal Election Commissioner Ellen Weintraub says talk of a coming blog crackdown is more about Republican scaremongering than coming rules.

Bloggers of America, chill.

Reports of a Federal Election Commission plot to "crack down" on blogging and e-mail are wildly exaggerated.

First of all, we're not the speech police. We don't tell private citizens what they can or cannot say, on the Internet or anywhere else. The FEC regulates campaign finance. There's got to be some money involved, or it's out of our jurisdiction.

Second, let's get the facts straight. Congress, in the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, limited how one can pay for communications that are coordinated with political campaigns, including any form of "general public political advertising."

It would be ironic indeed if in the name of campaign finance reform, we were to try to squelch inexpensive on-line grassroots political rabble-rousing.

The commission issued a regulation defining those communications to exempt anything transmitted over the Internet. A judge struck down that regulation as inconsistent with the law. So now we're under a judicial mandate to consider whether anything short of a blanket exemption that will do.

For example, can paid advertisements on the Web, when coordinated with a particular campaign, be considered an in-kind contribution to that campaign? Context is important, and the context here has everything to do with paid advertising, and nothing to do with individuals blogging and sending e-mails.

Third, anyone who says they know what this proposed regulation will address must be clairvoyant, because the commissioners have yet to consider even a draft of the document that will set out the scope of any such rule.

By law, we need to decide on the scope by a public vote, and the rulemaking cannot proceed without the votes of a majority of the six commissioners. At that point, we'll not only publicize what we're contemplating, we'll invite and consider public comment before we make any final decisions. That scope document (called a notice of proposed rulemaking) will be considered later this month. Until that happens, concerns about crackdowns are premature, at best.

I can't speak for my colleagues, but I'm not aware of anyone here who views this rulemaking as a vehicle for shutting down the right of any individual to use their electronic soapbox to voice their political views.

For people who worry about the influence of money on politics, the Internet can only be seen as a force for good, for the simple reason that it's generally a very cheap form of communication. As the Internet becomes an increasingly effective political tool, a candidate may not need to raise large sums of cash to run television ads, if she can get her message out cheaply and efficiently over the Internet.

It would be ironic indeed if, in the name of campaign finance reform, we were to try to squelch inexpensive online grassroots political rabble-rousing. Fortunately, I'm not aware of any intent to do so. Suggestions to the contrary are simply partisan scaremongering tactics by those attempting to foment false hysteria in the Internet community. Don't fall for it.