WASHINGTON – The Federal Election Commission (search) took its first step Thursday in extending campaign finance (search) controls to political activity on the Internet, asking for public input on limited regulations for the freewheeling medium.
Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, who took the lead on drafting proposals with vice chairman Michael Toner, described the steps as "restrained." The commission emphasized a hands-off approach to bloggers, or authors of Web logs, among the loudest and unruliest voices online.
"We are not the speech police," said Weintraub, a Democrat. "The FEC does not tell private citizens what they can or cannot say, on the Internet, or elsewhere."
The draft guidelines suggest applying limits that exist in other media to certain political advertising on the Web and political spam (search) e-mail.
The six-member commission approved a work in progress and invited public comment for 60 days before a June hearing. Republican David Mason was the sole dissenter.
The commission said it was exploring Internet regulation reluctantly -- ordered to do so by a court -- and with the lightest touch possible, exempting everything except certain kinds of paid political advertising.
But the Center for Individual Freedom, a nonprofit advocacy group, said any regulation is too much.
"No matter how innocuous the proposal may appear on the surface, these rules still represent the government's first foray into regulating the Internet, and the draft raises the very real possibility that the final rules may be much more extensive," said Reid Cox, the group's general counsel.
Toner, a Republican, said the commission recognizes the Internet is distinct from other forms of communication in that it does not "invade" the home like a television ad might, but rather offers content that the user seeks. Nor does one message online crowd out a competing opinion, as happens in newspapers or television networks that have limited space or time.
He said the Internet is "virtually a limitless resource, where the speech and activities of one person do not interfere with the speech of another."
In 2004, about 200 million people in the United States used the Internet, out of roughly 295 million in the country.
The number of people who used the Internet as a source of campaign news more than doubled between 2000 and 2004, from 30 million to 63 million. An estimated 11 million relied on politically oriented blogs as a primary source of information during the 2004 presidential campaign, the FEC said.
The draft focuses on paid advertising and political spam e-mail.
Under the proposal, a political ad paid for by a Web site operator and displayed on a different site would be considered a "public communication" subject to campaign finance controls. Internet material would otherwise be excluded from the definition of a public communication for regulatory purposes, Toner said.
News stories, commentaries and editorials appearing on Web sites would not be considered a contribution subject to limits.
The commission also proposed an exemption for individuals using their own computer or one at a public place, such as a library, for Internet activities.
It sought public comment on whether bloggers who are paid by candidates should or could be required to disclose these payments or have a disclaimer.
Following the public comment period, a hearing on the issue will be held on June 28 and June 29, if a second day is needed.
Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan group that works on campaign finance and political reforms, said he was pleased the commission's proposals make it clear that paid advertising that runs on the Internet is covered by campaign finance laws, and that bloggers will not be restricted.