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Internet election rules could be blocked

Democratic senator wants to block the Federal Election Commission from a feared blog crackdown. FEC will vote Thursday.

The Internet would be immune from campaign finance laws that could restrict freewheeling political discourse, according to a new proposal in Congress.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., has introduced legislation that would effectively overturn a federal judge's decision from last year that brought Internet politicking under the ambit of a controversial campaign finance law.

The Federal Election Commission is expected to vote on the topic Thursday.

"Regulation of the Internet at this time would blunt its tremendous potential, discourage broad political involvement in our nation and diminish our representative democracy," Reid said in an e-mail message. "We should avoid silencing this new and important form of political speech."

Bradley Smith, a Republican FEC commissioner, recently alarmed bloggers and political activists by warning that online activities such as creating hyperlinks or forwarding campaign press releases could be regulated in the near future. "If someone else doesn't take action, for instance in Congress, we're running a real possibility of serious Internet regulation," Smith said in an interview with CNET

Reid's proposal is straightforward; it amends existing law to say the Internet is not included in the definition of what is regulated by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, better known as the McCain-Feingold Act.

In 2002, the FEC concluded that the wording of the law did not clearly cover the Internet. But Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly disagreed.

"To permit an entire class of political communications to be completely unregulated, irrespective of the level of coordination between the communication's publisher and a political party or federal candidate, would permit an evasion of campaign finance laws," she wrote last year, ordering the FEC to revise its rules.

The three Republican commissioners had hoped to appeal that portion of Kollar-Kotelly's ruling, but their three Democratic colleagues refused. Among the questions the FEC may consider Thursday: Do bloggers qualify as journalists? Must Web publishers disclose any relationship with campaigns? Does posting a campaign's press release qualify as a donation? How about a favorable link?

Current law regulates "public communications," defined as involving a broadcast, cable or satellite connection; a newspaper or magazine; a billboard or bulk mail campaign; or "any other form of general public political advertising." That definition is broad enough to sweep in the Internet, Kollar-Kotelly decided.

In preparation for the FEC's expected vote, a group of bloggers and political activists calling themselves the Online Coalition have organized a petition to the commission. The petition, which has received thousands of electronic signatures, says "curtailing blogs and other online publications will dampen the impact of new voices in the political process."