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Undercover campaigning on the Web

FEC rules allow the people behind clips like those about Clinton and Obama on YouTube to remain anonymous.

March 21, 2007|Dan Morain | Times Staff Writer

As hundreds of thousands of people view a brief, provocative video clip on the Internet slamming Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's run for the presidency, federal election law suggests that whoever paid for, produced and posted the spot might never be known.

The reason: The Federal Election Commission last year issued regulations leaving Internet political communications all but unfettered.

As such, the anti-Clinton spot that has generated buzz on YouTube, in blogs, and in the mainstream media in the last few days will probably be followed by many more, with potential political impact.

The spot, the first such salvo to attract attention in the 2008 presidential campaign, is a rip-off of a famous Apple Computer ad that aired during the 1984 Super Bowl -- and is derivative of a similar Internet ad aimed at Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) last year.

In an example of the mischief that can play out on the Internet, the anti-Clinton ad implies, but doesn't directly state, that the campaign of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) was behind it. Obama denied involvement.

Another rip-off is already targeting Obama. A Clinton spokesman said he was unaware of the Obama spot.

None of it is traceable, at least not without a subpoena. YouTube assures its users their privacy will be protected.

"Free speech. That simple," said Andrew Rasiej, founder of Personal Democracy Forum of New York, which tracks the confluence of politics and the Internet. "Posting a video is no different than sitting in a coffee shop and voicing your opinion."

Others see dangers.

"When it is not regulated, you can take any amount of money from any source, including foreign entities, and you are not required to disclose it," said Carol Darr of the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet at George Washington University.

"There are a lot of people around the world who care about who the next president is," she said. "If they can have an effect without leaving fingerprints, it is naive to think they won't."

Last April, after a lengthy review, the FEC issued regulations that treat the Internet "as a unique and evolving mode of mass communication and political speech that ... warrants a restrained regulatory approach."

"The vast majority of Internet communications are, and will remain, free from campaign finance regulation," the commission wrote, adding that it was "affirming that Internet activities by individuals and groups of individuals face almost no regulatory burdens under the Federal Election Campaign Act."

The FEC does require disclosure when candidates pay for ads on websites. There also are disclosure requirements for paid Internet fundraising. But there are few other restrictions on political activity on the Internet.

Scott Thomas, who served on the FEC, said commissioners feared they would face "a mountain of complaints" if they imposed stricter regulations. Commissioners did not want to "drag a lot of people through the FEC process and put a huge burden on candidates."

Although Internet spots are similar to TV ads, disclosure requirements are far different. The law requires candidates to publicly disclose the identities of those who produce TV or radio ads and the cost of those ads.

But Thomas said the commission created a mess when it concluded that if no payment was made, campaigns need not disclose the identities of people who act in concert with candidates to carry out political activity on the Internet. He noted that it costs money to create an ad, which should be disclosed as a contribution to the candidate.

"The FEC lost track of the fact that a lot of Internet communication does cost money," Thomas said.

Professor Richard L. Hasen, an election law expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said requiring disclosure helped guard against corruption by candidates who take large donations. If little or no money is involved, he added, the chance of corruption is much less.

"We're now in an era of cheap speech," Hasen said. "When the speech is cheap, some of the interests behind disclosure are not there."

However, he believes there should be at least some disclosure requirements.

"If this is coming from a campaign or someone is being paid to disseminate it, you would want to know," Hasen said. "Aside from corruption, disclosure helps voters decide how credible the source is."

The producer of the anti-Clinton video is identified only as ParkRidge47 -- an apparent reference to Clinton's year of birth and the place in Illinois where she grew up.

The spot has an Orwellian air, just as the Apple ad did more than 20 years ago. As rows of seated men stare trance-like, Clinton talks on a large screen about the "conversation" she hopes to have with voters. A runner with an Obama logo on her T-shirt hurls a hammer and shatters the screen, breaking the men's trance.

A counter on YouTube indicates that the ad has been viewed more than 1.3 million times since it was first posted earlier this year.

The Obama ad uses the same imagery but has him talking about the Chicago Bears' appearance in the most recent Super Bowl. It ends with a line about how Obama, like the Bears, would lose. According to YouTube, the spot had attracted about 200,000 views by Tuesday evening.

The Clinton ad gained attention in early March on Rasiej's Internet-based Personal Democracy Forum and its site TechPresident, which tracks Internet aspects of the campaign. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote about the spot Sunday.

Micah Sifry, editor of TechPresident, who has corresponded by e-mail with the person taking credit for the Clinton spot, said he would like to know the producer's identity, but didn't believe such communication should be regulated.

Calling the Internet "word of mouth on steroids," Sifry said: "The striking fact today is the knowledge and skill to make a video like this has moved out of campaign headquarters. It is the beginning of something new in politics."

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dan.morain@latimes.com

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