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Political Bloggers Riled Over Campaign Finance Law

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: Big soft money supports bloggers; net neutrality debate hardly neutral; telcos nearing boffo legislative sweep.

It was the week that wasn't.

Budget battles forced the House to delay consideration of legislation currently roiling political bloggers who, as you know, are somewhat excitable people.

The House scheduled a vote on the Online Freedom of Speech Act of 2005 for Thursday but never got around to it, which may be a good thing according to opponents of the bill.

The bill, sponsored by Texas Republican Jeb Hensarling, would relieve political bloggers from any provisions of campaign finance laws regardless of the blogger's financial connection to a campaign.

Sounds good, right?

Maybe. If you like the idea that the bill will create a giant loophole for backdoor soft money to pour through the Internet.

The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) of 2002 (a.k.a. McCain-Feingold), 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 Federal Election Commission (FEC) issued definitions and rules to implement the law, it specifically exempted the Internet from any provisions of the BCRA.

Then, the pesky courts stepped in and told the FEC its interpretation was overly broad. Upon reexamination, the FEC decided that, indeed, some provisions of the BCRA did apply to the Internet.

The political bloggers went wild (or, more accurately, wilder than usual in the slur and slam of their medium), and unleashed a torrent of comments about free speech on the Internet.

Hensarling slapped on his Internet hat and rode to the rescue, which thrilled bloggers. But the move really most excited the financial fat cats of the political world.

Hensarling's bill would allow the moneymen to spend as much as they want and say whatever they want no matter the truth. Better yet, it could be done under other's people's names, i.e., bloggers.

How much is this a big thing for big money? Consider this: the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Democracy 21, the League of Women Voters, Public Citizen, U.S. PIRG and the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) all oppose the legislation.

They support the Internet Free Speech Protection Act of 2006 (H.R. 4900).

"H.R. 4900 protects bloggers and small speakers far better than does H.R. 1606, and by design, it does not create other loopholes in the campaign finance laws," the CDT says.

NO ONE'S NEUTRAL ON NET NEUTRALITY: AARP, Adobe, BT America, the Digital Media Association, Sony Electronics and the Business Software Alliance are the latest groups to join a growing coalition supporting net neutrality.

The six added their names to a list of 70 organizations and companies pleading with Congress not to cave in to telco demands for the right to charge extra fees to high bandwidth users.

In an open letter to the Senate Commerce Committee this week, the coalition wrote:

"The open architecture of the Internet has always let providers, as well as individual innovators, share, offer and create the content, devices, applications, and services that the marketplace desires. Consumers in the marketplace, and not network operators, should decide what content and services succeed or fail."

Current betting among insiders on Capitol Hill is that the telcos will win this one.

SPEAKING OF TELCOS: This year is shaping up as a winner for the telcos. Not only does it seem likely they'll get their way on Net Neutrality, Congress can't seem to wait to clear the regulatory way for AT&T's and Verizon's IPTV offerings by pushing legislation to eliminate the local franchising requirements currently faced by cable companies.

Contained in almost all the various flavors of telecom reform floating around Capitol Hill these days include provisions for the telcos to pay just one statewide franchise fee.

The Institute for Policy Innovation (IPI), a public policy think tank, wants the same fair shake for the cable giants and, by extension, consumers.

"One of the most despicable things government does is insert itself as a middleman between consumers and producers in order to extract revenue. For this reason the entire system of video franchises should be tossed out the window," IPI President Tom Giovanetti said in a statement.

"There is no justification for additional taxes in the form of franchise fees. The reason all the players in this debate have so easily agreed on the new franchise fee formula in the reform is that none of them are actually paying it. They're just passing it through to consumers."

Bartlett Cleland, director of the IPI Center for Technology Freedom, added in the statement:

"In no way should legislation provide advantages for one part of the communications industry over another. Business models and technology have come a long way in the last several years -- intermodal competition has made one large communications industry rather than the cable industry, telecommunications industry, etc."

(Roy Mark is Senior Washington Editor of Internetnews.com)



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