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The Internet: open field for political comment
By Scott Bradner
Now that the primaries are over there may be a few days of diminished intensity in the political ads that flood the airwaves and print media. But don't get too used to the slightly less disgusting ads for potions to counteract malfunctioning body parts, the peak of the political season does not start for another month or so. The political ads will be back in force -- each trying to make you think that the person behind a repulsive ad attacking their opponent is somehow less repulsive than the ad they approved. Thanks to the Federal Elections Commission you too can still be part of this food fight without risking anything but your reputation and sanity.
Last year there was a uproar over what the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) (http://www.fec.gov/) should do about political discussion (including blogs) on the Internet after a Federal Court ruled that it had to so something. (http://moritzlaw.osu.edu/electionlaw/litigation/documents/memorandumandorder.pdf). In April 2005 the FEC came up with a proposed set of rules (http://www.fec.gov/pdf/nprm/internet_comm/notice_2005-10.pdf) and held a public hearing in June 2005.
There was a great deal of concern that the FEC would wind up with a set of rules that would restrict political speech on the Internet in the name of "fairness" and controlling political contributions after a House bill titled "the Online Freedom of Speech Act" aimed at protecting such speech failed to pass. The bloggers and many others were all in a tizzy. In the end the rules the FEC did adopt did not live up to the threat hype.
There are rules though and anyone wanting to exercise their rights to discuss political issues on the Internet should have some understanding of them. The Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) has just put up a new website (http://www.netdemocracyguide.org/) to help such folk understand what their rights and responsibilities are under the current election laws. There is a whole lot of law here - the FEC's compilation of Federal campaign laws runs 221 pages (56 of which are an index - a whole lot of details in these laws).
The CDT web site includes a 10 question quick checklist for you to see if you are subject to regulation by the Federal campaign finance laws. It also includes a number of easy to understand FAQs on specific areas including blogging, operating a web site etc, and pointers to many resources including federal laws and regulations. The primary requirement seems to be that you need to report to the feds if you buy ads to express political opinions in any venue -- Internet ads are not exempted.
Seems good to me but it is sad that there seems to be no effective rule against outright lying in political ads and sadder still that it would get used so often.
An aside on the intellectual prowess of candidates - I know that the federal do-not-call law exempts political calls but in my opinion any candidate too stupid to understand that people get on that list so they will not get unsolicited calls is too dumb to be qualified for office -- clearly this is not a current rule, just my wishful thinking.
disclaimer: Harvard grads are running in many elections, at least some of them are dumb enough to ignore the do-not-call list (not clear how they got into Harvard) but as far as I know Harvard has expressed no opinion on the topic (but I just did).