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To hear Ellen Weintraub tell it, bloggers were not the only ones breathing a sigh of relief after the Federal Election Commission decided last week that most political speech on the internet, including online journals, would not be subject to campaign finance law restrictions after all.
“No one at the FEC woke up one morning and decided that this would be a good day to regulate the internet,” said Ms Weintraub, one of the FEC’s six commissioners, in a letter introducing the rules, which were approved in a unanimous vote last week.
The FEC no doubt hopes that the new rules will close the lid on a controversy that errupted in 2004, after a federal judge struck down an earlier attempt by the group to exempt all forms of Internet communication from regulation under 2002’s McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill.
The judge’s decision sparked a firestorm of controversy in the blogosphere amid concerns that forcing websites to abide by restrictions on “general public political advertising” by political campaigns could restrict free speech.
The Internet in general, and online weblogs in particular, emerged as important fora for political debate during the 2004 US presdiential campaign.
Under the rules approved last week, bloggers and pundits of all stripes will remain free to support, criticise, and even accept money from political campaigns of their choice.
Paid political adverts would be only Internet activity considered to fall under the definition of “general public political advertising” outlined in a 2002 campaign finance bill that placed strict limits on the campaign help politicians were eligible to receive from individuals and “soft money” groups.
The narrow interpretation of campaign finance laws as applied to the Internet was widely welcomed by bloggers and activist groups.
“We won,” said Markos Moulitsas, the founder of DailyKos, a promient political blog.
Michael Toner, chairman of the FEC, said the new rules would allow “an individual or group of individuals to spend whatever money they wish on their Internet activities without any of the expenditures being considered a contribution to the candidates they support.”
Acknowledging the increasing importance of blogging in US political debate, the FEC’s rules grant bloggers the same rights as members of the mainstream media to criticise or support political figures without violating campaign finance laws.
Bloggers who receive payments from political campaigns would not be required to disclose them. But the campaigns themselves would continue to be required to report all such payments in federal election filings. Employees of corporations and labour groups will also be free to air their political views even if they use their work computers to do so.
Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which has been critical of the FEC, said the commission had struck the right balance between the need for campaign finance controls and the need for free political debate on the internet.
“A lot of people see the internet as a place that should not be regulated, and they see it as a real opportunity for the average person to get their political voice out,” he said. “At the same time, there was recognition that there are certain situations in which campaign finance laws should apply, like buying ads on other people’s websites.”
Campaign reform advocates may yet challenge the new rules in court. But Ms Weintraub was confident they would stand up to a legal challenge.
“This may be the most deregulatory regulation this agency has adopted since I have been here. And that is approprate because the internet really is a special case in politics,” said Ms Weintraub.