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Political Web ads may be curtailed

The Federal Election Commission reluctantly says Internet political advertising may have to be regulated.

The freewheeling days of Internet political advertising may be coming to an end.

The Federal Election Commission plans to begin reviewing next month whether the Internet should continue to enjoy its privileged status as exempt from some of the stricter dictates of a 2002 campaign finance law.

For the last three years, the FEC has been fighting to protect the rough-and-tumble world of Net advertising from being shackled by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, better known as the McCain-Feingold law. In the 2004 election, advocacy groups or rich individuals were able to coordinate online advertising with a political campaign without having it count as a contribution--something that's flatly not permitted for traditional media such as newspapers and television.

But now the FEC is reluctantly revisiting its earlier decision, thanks to a federal judge's ruling in September. "The commission's exclusion of Internet communications from the coordinated communications regulation severely undermines" the law's purposes, wrote U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly.

"One of the reasons the commission is doing this is the judge's problem with the exclusion of the Internet," an FEC spokesman said. The FEC's decision was first reported by political newspaper Roll Call.

At the heart of the dispute is the vague wording of the 2002 law, which regulates political advertising coordinated with political campaigns that appears on "any broadcast, cable or satellite communication, newspaper, magazine, outdoor advertising facility, mass mailing or telephone bank to the general public, or any other form of general public political advertising."

In 2002, the FEC concluded that portion of the law did not extend to the Internet. Because Congress included the Internet and the World Wide Web elsewhere in the statute, the omission was intentional, the FEC reasoned.

But 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, and ordered the FEC to revise its rules.