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Political free e-speech

March 31, 2006

BLOGS HAVE BEEN A POTENT force in U.S. politics since, oh, 2004, when they helped bring down a presidential candidate or two and at least one TV news anchor. But not until this week did they officially join the American political system: The Federal Election Commission voted to regulate them.

Oddly enough, bloggers at both ends of the political spectrum welcomed the FEC's move. That's because the effect of its new rules will mainly be on campaign committees, not on people who post their political musings online. The seeds for the rules were planted when Congress passed the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law in 2002. Named after its Senate sponsors, John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), the measure was designed to prevent unlimited, undisclosed donations from influencing federal campaigns and to regulate groups that air political commercials late in a campaign.

Initially, the FEC said the law didn't apply to online communications. That would have opened a huge loophole for so-called soft money -- dollars raised for a cause, not a candidate -- to finance campaigns on the Internet. Two House members sued, and an appeals court ruled that the FEC's exemption for the Internet was too broad. On Monday, the commission responded by taking as little action as it could, regulating only paid political advertising online. Anyone who buys political ads on someone else's website will have to report the expenditures to the FEC, and the ads will have to name their sponsors.

That leaves amateur politicos and volunteer partisans who don't run ads free to create "Vote for Smith" websites, write blog entries and send mass e-mails without coming under the FEC's purview. They can even be paid by a candidate to blog on his or her behalf, and only the candidate would have to report the payments to the FEC.

The online audience for political news and opinion has been growing rapidly since the mid-1990s. According to the FEC, about 11 million people rank bloggers as their No. 1 source of political news, and 63 million Americans went to the Web for at least some campaign news in 2004. And the Internet has proved to be a remarkably efficient fund-raising tool.

The size and vigor of the online audience make it important, yet the Internet's potential effect on voters is different from other media's in several respects. Politicians can blanket local TV airwaves with campaign ads, pushing their messages out to their constituencies. Online, however, it's virtually impossible to advertise to a significant number of Web users in any community. The best a candidate can do is to buy ads on the most popular websites and hope that people in the district will stumble over them.

More important, anyone who wants to publish his or her views online can do so. Unlike television and newspapers, there are no barriers to entry online. So if candidate Smith's backers say candidate Jones is a Bible-burning, soft-on-terrorism wacko, candidate Jones' allies can easily respond in kind on their own sites. Combine that with the blogosphere's penchant for ferreting out hidden agendas, and you have a far more effective regulatory force than the FEC could ever hope to apply.

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