Political bloggers may get federal protection

A House of Representatives committee votes to immunize bloggers from complex and confusing election law requirements.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
2 min read
Bloggers would be largely immunized from hundreds of pages of confusing federal regulations dealing with election laws, according to a bill approved by a House of Representatives panel on Thursday.

Democrats had blocked an earlier effort last November to enact the legislation, which would amend federal campaign finance laws to give Internet publishers many of the same freedoms that newspapers and magazines currently enjoy.

"We don't expect bloggers to check with a federal agency before they go online," said House Administration Committee Chairman Vernon Ehlers, a Michigan Republican, referring to the Federal Election Commission. "They shouldn't have to read FEC advisory opinions (or have) to worry about running afoul of federal election laws."

The FEC is under court order to finalize rules to extend a controversial 2002 campaign finance law to the Internet. Unless Congress acts, the final regulations could cover everything from regulating hyperlinks to politicians' Web sites to forcing disclosure of affiliations with campaigns.

Opponents of Internet reform have warned that the measure would invite "corrupt" activities to take place online, such as cozy relationships between bloggers and political candidates that were not disclosed. The New York Times wrote in an editorial in November that "the Internet would become a free-fire zone without any limits on spending."

"Bloggers should be treated no different from talk radio," said Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald, a California Democrat. "Talk radio hosts have protections under the First Amendment. While I may disagree with their positions on the issues of the day, I will nonetheless fight for their right to speak their mind."

Millender-McDonald said she never intended for her vote in favor of the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act, better known as the McCain-Feingold law, to "squeeze out the voices of people expressing themselves on blogs on the Internet." Because the FEC's Democratic commissioners would not appeal a court order, that 2002 law is forcing the agency to act.

November's floor vote on the same bill, which more than three-quarters of congressional Democrats opposed at the time, took place during a special, accelerated procedure that required a two-thirds majority for approval. Under normal procedures, which are happening now, only a majority is required.

The House reform proposal, only one sentence long, simply says that the portion of federal election law that deals with publications aimed at the general public "shall not include communications over the Internet."

The Center for Democracy and Technology has offered an alternative proposal (click here for PDF) that was not considered on Thursday. In some ways, it would be more censorial than the House bill because it would immunize a self-published political Web site only if the cost remained under $5,000.

But CDT's proposal appears to be less restrictive in other ways. Unlike the House bill, according to an analysis the group prepared, three friends who produce a video for $3,000 attacking a political candidate would not be required to register as a political action committee.