Bloggers won. That was the consensus two weeks ago, after a yearlong, off-and-on blog swarm that clearly shaped the thinking of the Federal Election Commission about campaign finance rules for the Internet.
That consensus is on the mark, too. Ordered by a federal court to write those rules, the FEC ultimately gave bloggers exactly what they wanted: a broad exemption from regulations that focus instead on political advertisements online.
Bloggers will not have to disclose election-related payments they receive, nor will they have to post disclaimers about such payments. In essence, the six federal election commissioners voted unanimously to preserve free speech online, at least to the extent the court would allow.
So now that the Internet campaign law of the land is settled, at least for the moment, what does it mean for the blogosphere in 2006, 2008 and beyond?
To answer that question, Glover interviewed former FEC Commissioner Brad Smith, Skeptic's Eye blogger (and former FEC staffer) Allison Hayward, the Center for Democracy & Technology's John Morris and our longtime nemesis, Carol Darr from the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet, and you can read those interviews in full at those links.
There are good tidbits in each. John Morris has some strong words about the future he believes the new rules empower:
What the FEC rules do is to give a very clear green light to bloggers, rather than an yellow light that says "go talk to a lawyer." So the vast majority of bloggers will be able to concentrate on their political discussions and debate rather than wondering whether they are complying with rules that were not really meant for them.
I think bloggers will indeed gain more influence in elections because bloggers will keep both campaigns and mainstream media from "setting the agenda" too narrowly. Moreover, a great contribution that bloggers make is that almost everything any candidate says will get questioned, challenged and rebutted by some blog out there, and that should make the political debate more open and ultimately more honest.
So what do the reformers fear now? From Darr, in response to a question about potential abuses:
CD: The potential is for large amounts of undisclosed money from foreign governments and individuals, and of course from deep pocketed American individuals, corporations and unions. Many of these potential abuses are not the result of the FEC's new Internet regs but are more attributable to larger changes in the media and in technology, and in the increasing polarization of U.S. politics, in which the meaner attacks are outsourced to third parties, who are less accountable.
I expect to see lots of funny/mean JibJab-style political videos, lots of micro-targeted e=mails, and undisclosed payments to bloggers made by third parties, not candidates, in order to escape disclosure. . . .
BB: How long before we see abuses? Will it happen in 2006? 2008? Or are the FEC rules solid enough to prevent abuses?
CD: Just because abuses happen, doesn't mean the public will necessarily be aware of them. I expect the activities to start immediately. Exemptions and loopholes never go unexploited for long, but if you have a good lawyer, the funding of many of these activities can escape public disclosure.
Yes, that's right: after the Commies sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids, they're going to take over our blogs.
Of course, nothing she fears in the Internet can't also go on in other media. I would, however, still point our international readers to this FEC brochure on Foreign Nationals if you have any questions about your rights and obligations. (In short: speech good, money bad, and read this 1981 advisory opinion.)
The future is in our hands, and the best antidote to "bad speech" remains more speech -- and your speech. Let me know if you have any questions, comments, concerns, etc.