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Bloggers narrowly dodge federal crackdown

Political bloggers and other online commentators narrowly avoid a sweeping set of Internet regulations.

Political bloggers and other online commentators narrowly avoided being slammed with a sweeping set of Internet regulations this week.

When the Federal Election Commission kicked off the process of extending campaign finance rules to the Internet on Thursday, the public document was substantially altered from one prepared just two weeks earlier and reviewed by CNET

The 44-page document, prepared by the FEC general counsel's office and dated March 10, took a radically different approach and would have imposed decades-old rules designed for federal campaigns on many political Web sites and bloggers.

According to the March 10 document, political Web sites would be regulated by default unless they were password-protected and read by fewer than 500 people in a 30-day period. Many of those Web sites would have been required to post government-mandated notices or risk violating campaign finance laws.

The explanation for the dramatic changes during the last two weeks, according to one FEC official familiar with the events, is the that followed a public alarm that Commissioner Bradley Smith sounded about a pending government crackdown on bloggers. After Smith's warning, an army of bloggers mobilized to oppose intrusive regulations and prominent members of Congress warned the commission not to be overly aggressive.

The regulatory approach was necessary because of "the increased use of the Internet by federal candidates, political committees, and others to communicate with the general public to influence federal elections," according to the March 10 draft.

"If the March 10 draft had gone into effect, it would have been bloggers with pitchforks and torches storming the Federal Election Commission at 999 E Street," said Mike Krempasky, a contributor to conservative Web site and co-creator of an online petition on behalf of bloggers.

Krempasky said that Democratic activists and even fellow commissioners unfairly criticized Smith as overreacting to the threat of regulation. The March 10 draft would have forced bloggers "to comply with the entirety of the regulations that apply to paid political advertising on television, radio and broadcast. It gives no substantive exception and even goes so far as to regulate in some circumstances a free blog on a free blog host."

Many Web sites that endorse or attack political candidates would have been required, for instance, to sport a permanent disclaimer.

The March 10 rule did exempt "any Web site, blog, or third-party content appearing on another person's Web site, so long as the aggregate disbursements for the Web site, blog, or other Web site content do not exceed $250 per calendar year." A long list of expenses would have counted toward the $250 trigger, including hosting fees, Web design software, domain name registration, fees paid to PayPal, and any "other payments" related to the site.

Brad Deutsch, the FEC's assistant general counsel, declined to discuss the differences between the two documents in a brief conversation Wednesday.

The FEC is in the unusual position of being required to extend the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act to online politicking because of a federal judge's order last fall. U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ruled--click here for the PDF file--that the FEC improperly exempted the Internet. She also ordered the agency to rewrite its rules.