Guess what: House Democrats listened. There has been a lot of interest on the Hill in finding ways to adequately protect political activity online while guarding against the possible harms of soft money, and a number of key Congresspersons and their staffs have been actively engaged in trying to work out workable legislative solutions.
I can tell you that no one has taken a greater personal interest in these issues than Rep. Brad Miller (D-NC), who today introduced H.R. 4389. Let me walk you through what this simple bill accomplishes:
To amend the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 to exempt news stories, commentaries, and editorials distributed through the Internet from treatment as expenditures or electioneering communications under such Act, and for other purposes.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,
SECTION 1. EXEMPTION OF INTERNET COMMENTARY FROM TREATMENT AS EXPENDITURE OR ELECTIONEERING COMMUNICATION.
(a) TREATMENT AS EXPENDITURE.-Section 301(9)(B)(i) of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (2 U.S.C. 431(9)(B)(i)) is amended by inserting ''the Internet or'' after ''facilities of''.
(b) TREATMENT AS ELECTIONEERING COMMUNICATION.-Section 304(f)(3)(B)(i) of such Act (2 U.S.C. 434(f)(3)(B)(i)) is amended by inserting ''the Internet or'' after ''facilities of''.
These two clauses would codify yesterday's FEC ruling which confirmed that online media is eligible for the press exception, protecting the ability of citizens to participate in weblogs, podcasting, wikis and any other form of political news, commentary and editorial without governmental interference. You can be an individual, a group or incorporated, and the protection is not dependent on using a "web log" but just looks at the means of transmission -- the Internet.
That was the obvious part. But as Rep. Miller told me, he greatly admired sites like Meetup.com and other places that used online mechanisms to encourage citizens to join together in real life and work towards political goals. So, after doing a good amount of research and thinking, he added to H.R. 4389 the following provision:
SEC. 2. TREATMENT OF ORGANIZATION OF ONLINE MEETINGS AS VOLUNTEER SERVICE EXEMPT FROM TREATMENT AS CONTRIBUTION.
Section 301(8)(B)(i) of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (2 U.S.C. 431(8)(B)(i)) is amended . . . .
(3) by adding at the end the following new clause:
"(xv) the value of services provided through the Internet in organizing and coordinating meetings of individuals to discuss a candidate or political committee, or to volunteer on behalf of a candidate or political committee, whether the person organizing and coordinating such meetings or discussions acts with or without compensation.
This provision will act to protect such sites that do not engage in news, commentary or editorial activities themselves, but are still a vital part of how citizens use the Internet to affect political affairs.
In addition, the bill's silence on "soft money" issues would leave such details to the Federal Election Commission to resolve as part of its current rulemaking process. As Markos, Atrios and I have said, we don't have a dog in that fight; we just want to make sure that citizen activity is protected, and that regulations focus on the candidates, parties and political committees already responsible for understanding and complying with campaign finance law.
Fellow Daily Kos diarist Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) is already co-sponsoring the bill, and I would encourage you to call your own Congresspersons to get on board as well. For everyone who said, "No one wants to regulate bloggers -- we were just worried about [X]," H.R. 4389 provides an opportunity to follow through with that promise of support.
There will likely be other bills introduced in the coming weeks to help define how campaign finance laws should be applied to the Internet. Some, from what I understand, may be quite comprehensive and quite good, and I will keep you updated on them.
But I really like the elegance of this bill, which basically asks the Members of Congress to agree that online news and commentary are just as worthy of protection from campaign finance law as those who practice it in print, on tv or the radio.
People wanted a bill that protected online speech without opening up a "soft money loophole"? Here it is.