WASHINGTON – With political fund raising, campaign advertising and organizing taking place in full swing over the Internet, it may just be a matter of time before the Federal Election Commission (search) joins the action.
Well, that time may be now.
A recent federal court ruling says the FEC must extend some of the nation's new campaign finance and spending limits to political activity on the Internet.
Long reluctant to step into online political activity, the agency is considering whether to appeal.
But vice chairwoman Ellen Weintraub (search) said the Internet may prove to be an unavoidable area for the six-member commission, regardless of what happens with the ruling.
"I don't think anybody here wants to impede the free flow of information over the Internet," Weintraub said. "The question then is, where do you draw the line?"
This election season has been a groundbreaking one online, as interest groups, campaigns and political parties use Web sites and e-mail to advertise, organize volunteers, reach out to donors and collect information about voters.
Former Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean made the most pronounced splash online when he stunned his rivals by raking in tens of millions of dollars through Web-a-thons, a far cheaper fund-raising method than traditional dinners and cocktail parties. And Internet message boards, known as blogs, have become as common a place for people to air their political views as talk shows and newspaper editorial pages.
The Internet also is where political players do what they can no longer do on television or radio.
The National Rifle Association, for example, has started an online newscast and talk show to air its views on presidential and congressional candidates. The Internet is exempt from a ban on the use of corporate money for radio and TV ads targeting federal candidates close to elections, part of the new campaign finance law that took effect this election cycle.
The November Fund, an anti-trial lawyer group partly funded by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is posting Internet ads criticizing Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards, a North Carolina senator and former personal-injury lawyer.
The FEC exempted such ads from the law's ban on coordination between candidates and groups that raise or spend corporate money. Last month, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly struck down the coordination exemption, ruling that it "severely undermines" the law.
Fred Wertheimer, president of the campaign watchdog group Democracy 21 and member of the legal team that successfully sued to overturn that and several other FEC rules interpreting the law, said campaign finance laws should apply to the Internet because substantial amounts of money are being spent on online at election time.
The laws may not always apply to the Internet as they would to other venues, Wertheimer said, "but by the same token the Internet cannot become a major avenue for evading and circumventing campaign finance laws on the grounds that people just want the Internet free from regulation of any kind."
Max Fose, a Republican Internet consultant who helped Arizona Sen. John McCain, a sponsor of the new campaign finance law, raise millions of dollars online for his 2000 presidential bid, is wary of the judge's ruling.
"Whenever there's something new and emerging and it's still developing, to place restrictions on it I think is going to hurt how political candidates and elected officials look to use the Internet, to not only be elected but look to get voters involved," Fose said.