WASHINGTON – The Federal Election Commission decided Monday to exempt virtually all political activity on the Internet from the nation's new campaign finance law.
In a 6-0 vote, the commission decided to regulate only paid political ads placed on another person's Web site.
The decision means that bloggers and online publications will not be covered by provisions of the new election law. Internet bloggers and individuals will therefore be able to use the Internet to attack or support federal candidates without running afoul of campaign spending limits.
"It's a win, win, win," Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub said, adding that the rule would satisfy concerns of campaigns, individuals and the Internet community about whether the campaign finance law applies to Internet political activity.
The commission was forced to act after a federal court ruled that the FEC must extend some of the new campaign financial and spending limits to political activity on the Internet.
The 2002 law requires that campaign ads for federal candidates be paid for with money regulated by the law, which limits contributions by individuals to $2,000 and bans union and corporation donations.
In its initial interpretation of the law in 2002, the FEC said no political activity on the Internet was covered. But a federal court judge ruled in 2004 that the commission had to craft a new rule that at the very least covered paid political advertising on the Internet.
The ruling, and the commission's decision not to appeal it, sparked fears among some Internet users that the panel might adopt broader restrictions. But FEC Chairman Michael E. Toner said the new rules give a "categorical and unqualified" exemption for all individual and group political activity on the Internet, except for paid advertising.
"The law was never intended to regulate private citizen communication on the Internet," said Commission Vice Chairman Robert D. Lenhard. "I believe that we have achieved that goal today."
Commissioners said the new rule also specifically changes several other FEC regulations to make it clear that Internet activity, such as blogging, e-mail communications and online publications, is not covered by the campaign law.
For example, the rule says individuals can use union or corporate computers or other electronic devices for political activity, as long they do it on their own time and are not coerced to engage in such activity by the union or corporation.
Bloggers would be entitled to the same exemption from the campaign finance law that newspapers and other traditional forms of media receive.
"There will be no second class citizens among members of the media," Toner said.