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'Net Exempt From Most Campaign Finance Laws

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) unanimously approved regulations today that widely exempt Internet political activity from federal campaign finance laws.

Under the new regulations, only paid online ads fall under campaign finance laws. Internet political advertising will be treated as the same as traditional radio, television and print advertising.

Aside from paid political advertising, all other forms of online speech will be unregulated by the FEC. The new regulations should provide some relief for political bloggers, who feared the FEC might more tightly regulate online political speech.

The latest rules clarify that, though unique, the Internet is essentially bound by the same rules as traditional media regarding political advertising and free speechs speech.

"Through this rulemaking, the Commission recognizes the Internet as a unique and evolving mode of mass communication and political speech that is distinct from other media in a manner that warrants a restrained regulatory approach," the new FEC regs state. "The Internet's accessibility, low cost and interactive features make it a popular choice for sending and receiving information."

The FEC vote comes just days before the U.S. House plans to vote on the Online Freedom of Speech Act of 2005 which would relieve political bloggers from any provisions of campaign finance laws.

Critics of the bill (H.R. 1606), claim it will open the back door to unlimited soft money flowing into the political process.

The FEC noted that the general public can only communicate through traditional mediums such as radio and television only by paying substantial advertising fees.

"Unlike other forms of mass communications, the Internet has minimal barriers to entry, including its low cost and accessibility," the FEC report states. "The vast majority of the general public who choose to communicate through the Internet can afford to do so."

The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) of 2002 set limits on how much individuals, small businesses and corporations can pay print, radio and television outlets for political "public communications" that are coordinated with political campaigns.

The BCRA does not target the Internet as an area of regulation, and when the FEC issued definitions and rules to implement the law, it specifically exempted the Internet from any provisions of the BCRA.

A federal court, however, said the FEC's definition of "public communications" was too broad and sent the regulatory panel back to the drawing board. Monday's action caps off the rewrite of the rules.