Lawmakers Target FEC Blog Rules


U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling isn’t interested in waiting on the Federal Election
Commission (FEC) to eliminate possible restrictions on political blogging.
The Texas Republican wants Congress to do it now.


Hensarling’s Help Protect Online Freedom of Speech bill would, in effect,
relieve political bloggers from any provisions of campaign finance reporting
laws, no matter the blogger’s financial connection to a campaign.


“When Congress passed campaign finance reform in 2002, the legislation did
not identify the Internet as a target of regulation, and rightly so,”
Hensarling wrote in a letter this week to his House colleagues.


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


In issuing its definitions to implement the BCRA, the FEC exempted the
Internet from any provisions of the law, but a federal court bounced those
rules as too broad in interpretation.


The FEC last month issued a new set of proposed regulations that continues
to exempt the Internet from the BCRA, except in cases of paid online
political advertising. In those circumstances, the advertising would be
subject to BCRA regulations.


“The judge’s decision does not mean that the FEC must now regulate all,
most, or even very much Internet activity,” FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub said last month. “We’re faced with a question of statutory interpretation, and the phrase we’re interpreting is ‘general public political advertising.'”


That’s not good enough, according to Hensarling and Sen. Harry Reid
(D-Nev.), who is sponsoring a bill identical to Hensarling. The bills would
amend the BCRA to expressly exempt the Internet from any provisions of
the law.


In introducing his legislation, Reid said he wanted to “make it clear that
Congress did not intend to regulate this new and growing medium in the
BCRA.”


A Reid spokesman added, “Basically, we want to set the clock back to 2004.
It is an acknowledgement that in reality nothing happened in the last
election that shows we need to regulate [the Internet].”


Neither bill is expected to move until the FEC
issues its new rules. Final public comments on the regulations are due June
3.


To satisfy the court, the FEC is proposing to exclude the Internet from the
BCRA’s public communications definitions except for paid advertisements. In
addition, it proposes to exempt from regulation any Internet communications
made by an uncompensated individuals using their own or publicly available
computer equipment.


Further, the FEC seeks comment on whether bloggers are entitled to a media
exemption and whether bloggers could or should be required to disclose
payments made to them by campaigns or political committees.


“That’s the sort of discussion we’ve been having, and however we resolve it,
I think it’s pretty clear that the result is not going to be bad for
bloggers,” Weintraub said in her March comments.

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