Politically themed YouTube videos could be the next target of federal regulators.
The top Democrat on the Federal Election Commission strongly suggested Friday that regulators look at extending their authority to election-themed Internet videos – an area that for years has been largely hands-off for the government.
The statement from Vice Chairwoman Ann Ravel, who is in line to take over the commission next year, prompted Republicans to warn that such a move could threaten the growth and freedom of the Internet itself.
“I have been warning that my Democratic colleagues were moving to regulate media generally and the Internet specifically for almost a year now,” Chairman Lee Goodman told FoxNews.com. “And today’s statement from Vice Chair Ravel confirms my warnings.”
At issue was a case considered by the FEC – the chief campaign-finance regulator – in September involving a group that ran pro-coal videos critical of Democrats in 2012. The group initially was accused of failing to report the cost of the videos and of failing to include the routine “disclaimers.”
But the group maintained that since they were only run on YouTube, they were exempt.
The case ended in a split, 3-3 decision at the FEC and was dismissed. But the vote itself aired a striking divide: despite a decision clearing the organization by the general counsel, Democrats voted to pursue an investigation anyway while Republicans voted to drop it.
Ravel was blunt in her written statement Friday explaining her side’s vote. She scolded Republicans for arguing rules that would apply to TV ads should not apply to web videos.
“As a matter of policy, this simply does not make sense,” she said.
She said, rather, a “re-examination” of the FEC approach to the Internet is “long overdue” and complained the commission has “turned a blind eye” to the Internet’s influence in politics.
“Since its inception, this effort to protect individual bloggers and online commentators has been stretched to cover slickly-produced ads aired solely on the Internet but paid for by the same organizations and the same large contributors as the actual ads aired on TV,” she said. Ravel vowed to “bring together” people from “across the spectrum” next year to look at the issue.
This set off alarm bells.
GOP members of the commission cite an “Internet exemption” dating back to 2006 that spares free web videos from FEC regulations. In other words, anyone who posts a politically themed video for free only to YouTube can – for now -- do so without including a disclaimer or reporting the costs.
“The FEC’s approach to free speech on the Internet should be hands-off,” Goodman said, urging the public to go to the FEC website to comment on the issue.
A statement from Goodman and his GOP colleagues on the commission likewise warned about the implications of the 3-3 decision, and a “desire to retreat” from “important protections for online political speech.”
This, they wrote, would be a “shift in course that could threaten the continued development of the Internet’s virtual free marketplace of political ideas and democratic debate.”
This is hardly the first warning from Goodman and his colleagues about the direction of the current FEC. He previously has warned that officials at the agency want to start regulating the media, and might even try to regulate book publishers. Democrats on the commission have called those allegations “overheated” and overblown.