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Politicos want to shield Net from election laws

FEC votes to extend campaign finance laws to the Net. But members of Congress want to change the law and immunize it.

A controversial plan by the Federal Election Commission to regulate political blogging may be short-lived after all.

Members of Congress said Thursday that the freewheeling world of Internet politicking should continue to be immune from campaign finance laws, and indicated they may rewrite the law to halt the FEC's proposal.

The handful of politicians present at a hearing convened by the U.S. House of Representatives Administration Committee hailed the Internet's power in democratizing politics and breeding grassroots action.

They touted the Net's low cost of entry, as compared with media such as television, and threw their support behind a brief amendment to campaign finance law, offered in March in both houses of Congress, that would "exclude communications over the Internet from the definition of public communication."

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat whose district covers Silicon Valley, indicated that the proposal enjoyed wide support and could be passed in an afternoon.

Existing campaign finance laws don't address the Net, but a "total carve-out" for Internet communications was built into FEC regulations issued in 2002. Last fall, however, a federal court ordered the FEC to clarify those Net rules, prompting a 47-page proposed rule-making document and two days of hearings.

On Thursday, two of the five sitting FEC commissioners, including Chairman Scott Thomas, said they favored a "less is more" approach to regulating the Net but saw a need to regulate paid political advertisements appearing on Web sites.

Commissioner Ellen Weintraub stood by her "Chill out, bloggers!" mantra, emphasizing that no one was interested in regulating the political speech itself. She said she'd be supportive of Congress taking action on the matter but that the FEC, under court order, would have to act soon if the lawmakers did not.

FEC Vice Chairman Michael Toner, departing from his colleagues, said he remained hopeful that the government would retain a broad Net exemption. It was no accident that the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act left the Internet out of its language, he said. And even the idea of confining the rules to paid ads would spark a new set of complexities in defining that category of speech.

Bloggers at the hearing continued to air their reservations about any regulations, saying they would be difficult to implement and even trickier to enforce.

"There isn't a real connection between the effectiveness of a site and how much money is spent on it," said Duncan Black, who runs a current events blog called "Eschaton."

Besides, the bloggers said, there aren't any concrete examples of instances where the Internet wielded a corrupting influence on politics.

The politicians indicated sympathy for the bloggers' arguments, adding that the need to police the ballooning blogosphere would be a mammoth task. Part of their reluctance to regulate seemed to stem from a lack of tech expertise. Rep. Bob Ney, the Ohio Republican who chairs the committee, called the issue "confusing" and "baffling."

"I think it's a blessing that we've managed to keep the heavy hand of regulation off the Internet," Lofgren said. "When the government moves in to regulate the Internet, we'll almost always get it wrong."