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March 03, 2005

Crucifed By the FEC

The FEC is out ta git me.

Well, probably not me. But other bloggers. Bigger ones. The sorts of guys who get to appear on Paula Zahn.

A judge recently overturned the 2002 Internet exemption voted for by the FEC. The judge's ruling now makes, it seems, praise of a politican, or links to their websites, potentially in-kind campaign donations, subject to FEC scrutiny (and donation limits!).

However, this would seem restricted to cases of "coordination" with a party or a candidate.

Which would seem to limit the impact... I've never coordinated with anyone. In fact, I often don't coordinate with myself.

But what is "coordination"? I don't know, and until now I never had to worry about it.

Hypothetically, let's say that some PR person working for a political candidate shoots me an email pointing out such-and-such a story that I might find interesting. Is this "coordination"?

It's not "coordination" when the DNC sends opposition research to a liberal reporter and he dutifully reports it. (Or, in fact, when a longtime Democratic operative gives transparently-sham documents to a partisan producer at CBS and she and Dan Rather run with the story like it's the moon landing.)

Why on earth should I be subject to rules that don't apply to reporters?

Fact is, I'm not strictly a reporter; neither am I really a journalist. If you're going to categorize the dumb stuff I do, I'm an amateur analyst, an armchair, pajama-wearing pundit.

But so is Bill Press. Yes, he draws a paycheck, but he's still obviously an amateur.

On these points...

Q: What rules will apply to the Internet that did not before?

A: The commission has generally been hands-off on the Internet. We've said, "If you advertise on the Internet, that's an expenditure of money--much like if you were advertising on television or the newspaper."

Do we give bloggers the press exemption? The real question is: Would a link to a candidate's page be a problem? If someone sets up a home page and links to their favorite politician, is that a contribution? This is a big deal, if someone has already contributed the legal maximum, or if they're at the disclosure threshold and additional expenditures have to be disclosed under federal law.

Certainly a lot of bloggers are very much out front. Do we give bloggers the press exemption? If we don't give bloggers the press exemption, we have the question of, do we extend this to online-only journals like CNET?

...

Q. If Congress doesn't change the law, what kind of activities will the FEC have to target?

A. We're talking about any decision by an individual to put a link (to a political candidate) on their home page, set up a blog, send out mass e-mails, any kind of activity that can be done on the Internet.

Again, blogging could also get us into issues about online journals and non-online journals. Why should CNET get an exemption but not an informal blog? Why should Salon or Slate get an exemption? Should Nytimes.com and Opinionjournal.com get an exemption but not online sites, just because the newspapers have a print edition as well?

Q. Why wouldn't the news exemption cover bloggers and online media?

Because the statute refers to periodicals or broadcast, and it's not clear the Internet is either of those. Second, because there's no standard for being a blogger, anyone can claim to be one, and we're back to the deregulated Internet that the judge objected to. Also I think some of my colleagues on the commission would be uncomfortable with that kind of blanket exemption.

Q. So if you're using text that the campaign sends you, and you're reproducing it on your blog or forwarding it to a mailing list, you could be in trouble?

Yes. In fact, the regulations are very specific that reproducing a campaign's material is a reproduction for purpose of triggering the law. That'll count as an expenditure that counts against campaign finance law.

This is an incredible thicket. If someone else doesn't take action, for instance in Congress, we're running a real possibility of serious Internet regulation. It's going to be bizarre.

Bizarre? How about ridiculous?

Thanks, John McCain. Until now I took conservative complaints about McCain-Feingold limiting free speech as important but fairly theoretical.

Now it's not so theoretical. The New York Times can print up oppo research from the DNC and call it "news" all the live-long day, but if I link the Bush-Cheney website, I may be subject to a long and costly investigation by the FEC.

I'm not sure if I ever linked any political party's or any candidate's web-site; I don't think I have. Maybe I did once.

But, thanks to John McCain, now it seems I can't. Even if I find something interesting there.

I guess I have to thank the somewhat-craven-on-this-issue George W. Bush as well.

Thanks to Ogre Gunner.

A Way Out?: Non-internet periodicals are excepted, huh?

Well, I guess we bloggers are going to just have to collect up a small base of "subscribers," paying something like $5 a year, and then send them out a "newsletter" every few months or so.

The "newsletter" will be the periodical; the blog itself will just be, ahem, the free on-line content, like what most magazines and newspapers offer.

If that's the hoop we have to jump through, so be it.

My "newsletter" will consist chiefly of character sheets for my highest-level D&D heroes as well as reviews of porno sites I frequent.

I may also include my regimen for working on my lats.

All important stuff. The political content on this site will just be a little bonus.


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posted by Ace at 02:47 PM

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