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FEC tackles suggestions for regulating Net politics

As the presidential campaign season heats up, election regulators are grappling with how decades-old rules should apply to fund raising, debates and constituent commentary on the Internet.

As the presidential campaign season heats up, election regulators are grappling with how decades-old rules should apply to fund raising, debates and constituent commentary on the Internet.

For the past several months, the Federal Election Commission has collected suggestions from individuals and organizations on how to regulate political activity on the Web, if at all.

Today is the deadline to submit comments, and so far, the governing body has received 1,200 emails concerning the matter, said Ron Harris, an FEC spokesman.

"This is merely a notice of inquiry, not a notice of proposed rule making," Harris said. "We're not seeking to hamper speech; we're simply seeking to apply the rules to the Internet."

Harris said it is unlikely--but not impossible--that new laws regarding politics and the Web will be developed by the November election.

Nonetheless, many worry that the inquiry will eventually lead to the shuttering of Web sites run by individuals either promoting a candidate or bashing an opponent.

"Our biggest concern is that this will put a damper on the democracy revolution that is happening online," said Pam Fielding of E-advocates, a Washington, D.C., Internet advocacy consulting firm. "If anything, the FEC should enhance Internet democracy and do nothing that will chill it."

Now more than ever voters are turning to the Web to tout their opinions about candidates, send emails to their representatives, and engage in chat room debates about political agendas.

Software developed by Capital Advantage, for instance, the parent company of E-advocates, generated 4.5 million emails from constituents to representatives in the past year, Fielding said.

Candidates, too, are taking advantage of the Web's broad appeal. Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley has raised more than $1.3 million in Internet contributions since his Web site was launched in December 1998, according to a Bradley campaign representative.

Earlier last year, Bradley asked the FEC to review campaign contribution laws that stated that only checks from constituents were allowable for the matching fund program. Under the program, the federal government will match contributions as long as a candidate agrees to a spending cap.

The commission eventually ruled that the law was outdated and allowed Bradley to submit credit card contributions raised over the Internet.

Still, FEC commissioners worry that the bustling political activity on the Net could trample on some long-held campaign rules.

For this reason, the agency is looking into whether regulations, such as the 1971 campaign disclosure law governing television advertisements, should apply to the Net--in other words, whether Web sites should be treated as political ads.

Many agree that some guidelines should be set, but not until after the 2000 election.

"I know there is potential for abuse on the Internet. Someone will always find a loophole around the rules; that is the downside to freedom," said Larry Makinson, executive director for the Center for Responsive Government in Washington, D.C. "But I think the FEC should draw some kind of rules based on the experience gained over the 2000 election."

So far, the six-member commission has been trying to clear some of the murkiness surrounding political Web sites through advisory opinions.

In November, the FEC did set some ground rules. It found that sites started by known campaign volunteers were not considered donations that have to be reported by candidates.

The opinion was in response to an inquiry by Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, who wanted to know whether volunteer Web sites needed to be tallied as campaign contributions.

The Bush advisory was a departure from a November 1998 opinion, which dealt with a Web site operated by Leo Smith of Connecticut.

Smith advocated the defeat of Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., and endorsed her opponent, Democratic candidate Charlotte Koskoff.

The commission concluded that Smith's site endorsing a federal candidate was equivalent to political advertisement, and he therefore was obligated to submit campaign finance disclosure.

Smith scoffed at the opinion, saying it was infringing on his right to free political speech. He said he challenged the FEC to hash out the matter in court but never heard back.

"They're trying to apply old logic to a new technology," he said in a recent interview. "I can understand where they're coming from: They don't want politicians setting up straw men on the Web. It's a difficult problem; the question, is what's the solution?"

Whatever the answer, Smith said he should have the right to speak, whether on a soapbox or on the Internet, without conditions.

The American Civil Liberties Union agrees. The organization has urged the FEC to create a "safe harbor" for Internet political speech by individuals.

FEC spokesman Harris said it will take several months for commissioners to sort through the comments and discuss whether new rules should be put in place.