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Help Defend the Blogosphere from Government Regulation

On June 28th and 29th the Federal Elections Commission will hold public hearings regarding the possibility of regulating weblogs. The FEC released proposed new rules this March outlining how blogs fit into the political cuisinart known as ‘campaign finance reform,’ and today is the final day for the public to address comments to the FEC or to request to speak at the hearings.

Initially, the FEC declined to include Internet activity under its interpretation of “public communication” in the muddled Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. This is the change in election law that brought the term “soft money” into common parlance. The trusty federal judiciary, however, knew better than the executive agency charged with enforcement of the law and handed down its Shays v. Federal Election Commission decision suggesting that the FEC had drawn the definition of “public communication” too narrowly by excluding Internet activity. The proposed rules released in March are the FEC’s answer to Shays, and they cast a dark shadow of regulation over political discourse in the blogosphere.

Among other features, the proposed rules would require bloggers to disclose if they were on the payroll of a national committee. Also, campaign ads taken out on blogs would come under scrutiny. But this is only the beginning. Blogs would be enveloped into the Kafkaesque machinery of classification and governance that currently makes television and radio such a farce at election time. If I hear an ad on the radio featuring a candidate’ voice proclaiming his fitness for office, do I really need to hear a disclaimer that the ad was paid for by that candidate’s election committee? If a candidate wants to advertise on the Seventh Age, do we really have the resources to inquire into the ultimate source of the money, to classify it, and to perhaps report it? If I volunteer for a candidate’s election committee, must I disclose that fact in each post addressing the election? What are the blog’s liabilities if I fail to do so? Would that change if I were paid by the candidate? What if through the discourse we engage in through this blog I find a candidate I can happily endorse and only later do I receive payment? What if the candidate is my mother-in-law?

This is a free speech issue not reckoned with since the advent of television. Indeed, the fundamental question is whether blogging is more like television and radio or whether it is more like chatting on the phone or arguing at the pub. Though the Internet has all the trappings of television, it must not be overlooked that it is essentially a medium of communication without any intrinsic application. Political ideas are transferred, as are recipes, tax forms, family photos and financial transactions. At its core, the Internet that makes blogging possible is a form of free communication and ought to be protected. Ironically, television and radio once were as well, before they were regulated into bizarre contortions.

Blogs represent the good of the Internet, even with the lunatics out there on the fringes of issues and causes. Regulation theoretically evens the playing field and standardizes polices for the good of the individual. But it accomplishes this at the expense of accountability directly to the individual and the innovation that comes from active participation in the marketplace. CBS does not avoid showing bare breasts at football games because their viewers would be angered, but because the FCC might be. Similarly, if the people wanted bare breasts at every football game, CBS would be unable to satisfy its viewers until the FCC allowed it. In the realm of airline travel and medicine, this kind of tradeoff works well. Cheap supersonic flights and wonder drugs will come along slower, perhaps, but with far fewer plane crashes and class actions. However, the marketplace of ideas demands freedom.

The explosion of political blogs represents the elemental power of political engagement bursting the confines of the mainstream media. This era presents an opportunity to reclaim a kind of public discourse unseen since the Founding. The strained monotone neutrality of the nightly news is drowned out by free-wheeling, unabashed partisanship. The precious and superficial feature articles of the mainstream print media are overrun by carefully researched, painstakingly argued analyses. The sterilized, narrow range of acceptable opinions is forcefully injected with fresh ideas from individuals and groups outside the hothouse of mainstream dispositions. The platitudes repeated at the bus stop and water cooler are subjected to dispassionate scrutiny and thereby demolished. All of this is accomplished in an unencumbered arena that requires no government license, no corporate sponsor, no overhead and, significantly, no ulterior motive. This is citizenship rehabilitated.

The case against the crusading campaign finance reformers is irrelevant here. For what it’s worth, I have submitted these ideas words to the FEC and I encourage anyone who cares for the vibrancy and legitimacy of the blogosphere to similarly make their feelings known. Regulation, in the name of campaign reform or any other cause, is antithetical to the Internet. And the Internet, as exemplified by blogs, is a positive force in this country.

Electronic comments must be sent to either internet@fec.gov or submitted through the Federal eRegulations Portal at http://www.regulations.gov. Any commenters who submit electronic comments and wish to testify at the hearing on this rulemaking must also send a copy of their comments to internettestify@fec.gov.


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