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Internet as a political tool, almost a joke


By Scott Bradner


On Sunday April 2nd the first story a reader ran into on the front page of the print edition of the New Your Times reported the obvious fact that the "Internet injects sweeping change into U.S. politics."  The story itself did not cover that much new ground but did have some interesting factoids (for example, 80% of the donations to the Kerry campaign for president from people between 18 and 34 years old came via the Internet).  But trends in Internet adoption and clarifications of federal law may just provide reason for the Times to revisit the topic soon.


The Times story mostly talked about how campaigns are beginning to use the Internet to reach supporters or to get their messages out in the face of the diminishing effectiveness of television advertising to convince potential voters to vote for (or against) a candidate or issue.


The story mentions a recent Pew Internet & American Life Project study that reported that about 44 million Americans (the Times says 50 million) used the Internet to read news on an average day in December 2005.  (  This number is up from 27 million in March 2002.  But the story did not mention the statistics, from the same Pew report, that American broadband Internet users were almost twice as likely to use the Internet as a news source than dial-up users (43% to 26%).  That coupled with the increase in the percentage of Americans subscribing to broadband Internet services is still growing means that the number of Americans turning to the Internet for news will continue to grow.  The percentage of Americans using broadband Internet access is now about 40%, up from about 18% in 2002. (From a different Pew report "Home Broadband Adoption in Rural America" -


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


In a not unrelated story, the U.S. Federal Elections Commission (FEC) has preliminarily adopted a set of definitions for "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 new FEC definitions ( exempt most uses of the Internet from the restrictions under the McCain-Feingold act.  The FEC commentary notes that the new definitions specifically exempt blogs from restrictions.  About the only Internet-related things that escape the new definitions are paid advertising on the Internet and the requirement that a campaign report any money they pay to bloggers.


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


Maybe it would have been better if the Times had published its story one day earlier, its just the kind of almost-joke that is best published on that day. (See "Almost a Joke


disclaimer: This summer Harvard students can take a class in "Wit and Humor" ( but I do not know if the class covers this type of bitter joke so the above observation is my own.