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Proposed FEC Rules Would Exempt Most Political Activity on Internet

By Zachary A. Goldfarb and Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 25, 2006; A04

The Federal Election Commission last night released proposed new rules that leave almost all Internet political activity unregulated except for the purchase of campaign ads on Web sites.

"My key goal in this rule-making has been to make sure that the commission establish clear rules to exempt individuals who engage in online politics from campaign finance laws," said Chairman Michael E. Toner, a Republican.

"We tried to craft a regulation that would allow the maximum amount of freedom for people as possible," said Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub, a Democrat.

Most bloggers, individual Web users, and such Web sites as Drudge Report and Salon.com are exempted from regulation and will be free to support and attack federal candidates, much as newspapers are allowed.

For the most part, leading advocates of the blogger community welcomed the proposed rules.

"As a whole, these are rules that I think those who have been fighting regulations are going to be cheering," said Richard L. Hasen, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, who runs the Election Law blog. The rules provide "broad exemptions for most political activity on the Internet, and expand the media exemption to the Internet," he said.

Hasen and others noted that as technology advances, the regulations will have to be modified.

In particular, Hasen said, "as the Internet and TV converge, the FEC or Congress will eventually need to rethink these rules to see if they make sense."

"Generally, it's in line with what I think bloggers ask for," said Jerome Armstrong, the founder of the liberal blog MyDD, an adviser to the Howard Dean for president campaign in 2004 and currently an adviser to former Virginia governor Mark R. Warner's political action committee. "They give bloggers the media exemption."

Armstrong voiced concern, however, over potential difficulties that could result from a requirement that campaign ads have disclaimers. "The size of a Web ad and the size of blog ad is so small that having to put a disclaimer on it is going to take up all the space," he said.

The House last week put off consideration of a bill that would have similarly left online political activity largely unregulated. Mike Krempasky, who runs the conservative blog RedState, called the proposed rules "a complex legal and regulatory scheme" and called on Congress to pass legislation sponsored by Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.).

Since 2000, the Internet has grown geometrically as a force shaping virtually every aspect of politics from fundraising to get-out-the-vote drives. The Democratic and Republican national committees are attempting to amass millions of e-mail addresses of supporters and contributors, and candidates at all levels are building lists.

The FEC's six members generally support the proposed regulations, but individual commissioners are expected to offer amendments when they meet Monday.

The commission had been under court order to regulate campaign advertising on the Web. The only restrictions in the proposal require that ads for federal candidates be paid for with money regulated by federal campaign law. Campaign law restricts individual contributions to $2,000, and bars unions and corporations from donating.

In a two-page summary of the 90-page set of rules, Weintraub and Vice Chairman Robert D. Lenhard stressed that the proposals "explicitly exempt from regulation the Internet activities of unpaid individuals or groups of individuals" and "bloggers will not be regulated."

A blogger who gets paid by a campaign will not have to report the money to the FEC, but the campaign will separately have to disclose the expenditures, under the proposed rules.

They would lift all restrictions on employee use of corporate and union-owned computers for political activities, as long as the work is done on employees' own time, not company time.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company