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'Net Insider


'Net as a political tool, almost a joke


New campaign rules exempt the 'Net from most restrictions.


By Scott Bradner, Network World, 04/10/06


On April 2, the first story readers ran across on the front page of The New York Times reported the obvious fact that the "Internet injects sweeping change into U.S. politics." The story did not cover much new ground, though it had some interesting factoids (for example, 80% of the donations from people aged 18 to 34 to the John Kerry campaign for president came via the Internet). Trends in Internet adoption and clarifications of federal law may just provide reason for The New York Times to revisit the topic soon.


The story mostly talked about how campaigns are beginning to use the Internet to reach supporters or get their messages out in the face of the diminishing effectiveness of television advertising to convince people to vote for or against a candidate or issue. The story mentions a recent Pew Internet & American Life Project study that reported about 44 million Americans (The New York Times says 50 million) used the Internet to read news on an average day in December 2005, up from 27 million in March 2002.


But the story did not mention that same Pew report's statistic that American broadband Internet users were almost twice as likely as dial-up users (43% to 26%) to use the Internet as a news source. Coupled with the increase in the percentage of Americans subscribing to broadband Internet services - it's now about 40%, up from about 18% in 2002 - that means the number of Americans turning to the Internet for news will continue to grow.


Pew also reports more than half of Internet news seekers go to major news sites such as CNN and MSNBC, almost 40% go to portals such as Yahoo and Google, and a bit fewer than 10% read blogs. That last number might surprise some in the political game, because blogs had a major impact during the last election, mostly in discovering "misstatements" made by politicians or, in a few cases, news people.


In a not-unrelated story, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) has preliminarily adopted a set of definitions for the term public communications, to be used in the context of the McCain-Feingold campaign reform act's restrictions on the use of public communications for political advertising. The definitions exempt most uses of the Internet from those restrictions; the FEC notes they specifically exempt blogs. About the only Internet-related things escaping the new definitions are paid advertising on the Internet and the requirement for a campaign to report any money it pays to bloggers.


So just when The New York Times reports on the Internet's impact on the political space, the FEC decides this space is mostly free of regulations. I agree with what the FEC has adopted, but it's not going to make any easier the Internet user's job of finding nuggets of truth among the dregs of what passes for news and fact on the Internet.


Maybe it would have been better if The New York Times had published its story one day earlier: it's just the kind of almost-joke that is best published on that day (see Almost a joke).


Disclaimer: Harvard students can take a class in Wit and Humor; I do not know if the class covers this type of bitter joke, so the above observation is my own.


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