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March 4, 2005
FEC to bloggers: shaddap and siddown
How, if at all, should the 2002 campaign finance reform law (commonly known as McCain-Feingold) apply to the Internet and to bloggers in particular? That's the question before the FEC (Federal Election Commission), which gave the 'net a free pass in 02. Problem is, that 4-2 ruling by the FEC was overturned last fall. Since the FEC couldn't decide to appeal that ruling it now has to enter into rulemaking, and the results for bloggers could be... well, insert your own apocalyptic adjective here.
CNET has an interview with Bradley Smith, one of the six FEC commissioners. And it's not encouraging. Smith points out that acts as simple as linking to a campaign Web site could be considered a political contribution. The FEC will need to decide not only what counts as a contribution, but how to value each activity on the net. It will have to decide such esoterica as whether a link from a high-traffic site is worth more than one from a low-traffic site. And what about links that show up in search engine results pages? Will people searching for information suddenly find holes in their search results because corporations such as Google and Yahoo! are forbidden to make campaign contributions? The list of potentially idiotic rulings that could emerge from this staggers my imagination.
My personal feeling is that the only way out of this tar pit is to wave the magic "journalist exemption" wand. Right now, a standard media outlet can produce any amount of campaign coverage without accounting for the spending, in the name of journalistic freedom. Like it or not, the FEC is now going to have to rule on whether or not to apply that exemption to everything from NYTimes.com, through CNET.com and on to blogs like this one. I can't wait to see what happens when they discover LiveJournal.
I noted last month that a lot of onliners are trying to distance themselves from the label "journalist." This in the name of getting paid to promote their views or the views of their paymaster. It will be interesting to see if any of them revise their attitudes when the FEC starts making them file campaign contribution forms.
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