What struck both me and Mike coming out of this conference is how little some of the so-called "experts" seem to know about how we use the internet for politics. Certain of the speakers were conjuring a world in which listservs
were a big factor, where the technology wasn't there yet for audio/video to be transmitted effectively by campaigns, and where, if you'll FF to 1:27 in the video, you'll see my question regarding bloggers doing fundraiisng for candidates treated like some wild-assed hypothetical.
In short, we fear that the people most involved in doing the regulating -- including many of the FEC commissioners themselves -- may have no idea what the universe is that they're trying to put under their baliwick. [And remember, unless Sen. Reid's bill passes, there will be regulation.]
Please understand: there are basically two schools of thought in this area -- there are those who represent either right-wing interests or party establishment interests who believe that campaign finance regulation generally is bad, and that therefore there shouldn't be regulation of the internet; and then there are liberal reform groups and people like Sen. Feingold who believe that campaign finance law can work, and that carefully-crafted regulations can cover the Internet without doing damage to our speech rights.
I started off in the second camp, but I'm increasingly moving to the first, because I fear that clumsily-drafted regulations will destroy what we've all created. For example:
- is a group blog that discusses federal candidates now a political committee that needs to register with the FEC?
- if a blogger accepts advertising, does that mean that everything she says about candidates who don't advertise now becomes an in-kind contribution that needs to be filed and disclosed?
- can a blogger incorporate herself for liability purposes and still freely discuss candidates? will she be forced to do so in an "evenhanded" fashion?
- can bloggers/readers who work at corporations discuss politics online from work?
- will we still be able to post anonymously or pseudonymously, or might websites be held liable for (a) posts by campaign staffers that don't disclose their identities or (b) posts by non-US citizens that try to raise money for US candidates?
- and, for all of these examples, will only the bloggers and posters who can afford to hire attorneys feel free to keep doing what they're doing, becuase of the threat of subpoena and federal investigation?
The results could be catastrophic -- and, please note, this has very little to do with whether bloggers have to disclose whether they're being paid for content. It's much broader that that. This is where you come in.
One of the most important things you can do is let the regulators know how you use the internet for politics, so that they understand what they're getting involved in and how careful they need to be in not stifling these robust communities. Here's how:
- The easier way: visit the CDT website and fill out this form. They'll use your answers to help them formulate their response, which will be a comprehensive take based on their eleven principles; or
- The harder way: email your comments directly the the FEC. Be polite, and tell them who you are, where you live (you must provide a postal address for your comment to be read), and how you use the internet for politics, using the CDT questions as a guide. Stress to them the vibrancy of these sites, how valuable they are to you, and the activities that you want to ensure remain free of onerous regulations. And post here what you've sent them, to give others an example and inspiration.
Lawyers like me can propose regulations to them and argue to the Federal Election Commission about how the law ought to be applied. But you've got the power -- and the right as citizens -- to explain to the FEC the importance of what's going on here, and why they need to only regulate where absolutely necessary. We only have until June 3.
Please help, and if you have questions, please ask.
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