WASHINGTON – The Federal Election Commission is considering whether to require political bloggers to disclose whether they are receiving funds from a political campaign, the latest step in a larger debate over whether political activity on the Internet should be regulated by the government.
Friday is the deadline set for the FEC to receive public comments on a number of proposed regulations dealing with Internet activities. The commission will hold hearings on June 28-29 in Washington, D.C., before deciding on final action.
One of those new rules, the disclosure requirement, has many bloggers bristling, accusing the government of unfairly targeting them and impinging on free speech. But other political activists say that blogs can act as secret cover for political smear campaigns and create a Potemkin village of grassroots support. They say if that's the impact, then the Web logs should be required to disclose whether their operators are on a campaign payroll.
"I think there is a benefit for voters when they find out that something they find on the Internet is more of a paid advertisement than independent analysis," said Rick Hasen, a Loyola Law School professor who has been one of the more vocal proponents for disclosure requirements. "We have all sorts of rules regarding television advertisements; I don't think this is going too far."
The explosion of political blogs on the Internet has invited the focus of campaign finance reformers, who say these Web sites can be used with virtually no controls to communicate campaign material, messages, advertisements and attacks against political opponents.
They point to a situation in South Dakota, where it was revealed that Jason Van Beek and John Lauck, who operated political blogs supporting Republican John Thune (search) in his challenge to unseat Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle, were paid by the Thune campaign $8,000 and $27,000 respectively for consultant work.
Their relationship was not disclosed by Thune or on their Web sites, which featured daily attacks on Daschle, who lost the 2004 race.
"No one is talking about limiting speech or spending, just disclosure, and I think that it is very valuable for voters to know if campaigns are behind a blog," said Hasen. "If you are reading something that said John Thune is a great senator, you might react differently if you knew John Thune paid for it."
Nevertheless, the FEC has offered tepid response about passing disclosure and other Internet-related proposals. The commission had initially left Internet activity out of its rulemaking required by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (search). It reversed course when the U.S Supreme Court ruled in a challenge to the FEC that the Internet could not be exempted from the new regulations.
Democratic commissioner Ellen Weintraub said the FEC set forth proposals, keeping in mind the interests of a free Internet.
"I don't see much desire on the part of the commission to engage in any heavy-handed regulation of the Internet," Weintraub told FOXNews.com.
"[Blogs] are new and I can't predict what we are going to do," she said. "There is a lot of concern out there that people who go online and voice their views — whatever they may be — on their blogs … should be able to do it pretty much unregulated because they are expressing their right of free speech."
Even so, the commission has issued a number of rule proposals and definitions, ranging from the blog disclosures and disclaimers for paid advertisements and mass unsolicited e-mails to coordination with political campaigns.
"The rules we have out there for comment aren't draconian," said Republican commissioner Bradley Smith, who said he would have preferred not to regulate Internet activity at all.
As for the blog disclosure of campaign payments, Smith points out that campaigns are already required to report such payments on their regular campaign finance reports to the FEC.
"If bloggers are getting paid by campaigns, it's being disclosed right now," he said.
But Hasen said that oftentimes campaign expenditures aren't reported until after an election, and by then it's too late.
"If we had instant disclosure of spending, the kind of disclosure that I'm looking for wouldn't he necessary," he said.
Not all campaign finance reformers have weighed in on disclosure, though some groups and individual experts have said they were sending comments to the FEC and looking forward to the upcoming hearings.
"While you don't want to restrict bloggers, you don't want to undermine the regulations that exist for campaigns either," said Larry Noble, head of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog that planned to comment on the proposed rules.
Bloggers have been particularly vocal about the proposed regulations, and suggest that self-disclosure, and adhering to a code of ethics, much like other news media do, is preferable to government control.
"Most bloggers agree that those who are being paid to support a candidate should disclose such an arrangement," Bruce McQuain, co-editor of the neo-libertarian QandO blog, wrote in an e-mail to FOXNews.com. "It's a credibility issue. Bloggers would be (and are) merciless to those who don't disclose those sorts of arrangements."
Others say it is not fair to require disclosure from bloggers when political pundits linked to campaigns aren't required to do the same on radio and television.
"It doesn't sound like something that is being applied even-handedly," said Dave Johnson, one of the authors of the liberal blog, SeetheForest.blogspot.com. Johnson said he thinks the burden should remain on campaigns to disclose their expenditures.
Mike Krempasky, who runs RedState.org, a conservative blog, agrees, saying disclosure would serve as a stalking horse to further Internet regulation.
"If you were to require bloggers to disclose, you would be regulating bloggers more than any other media," he said.
Commissioner Smith said that he would not be surprised if the campaign finance reform movement, which was integral to passing BRCA, didn't come out in support of the proposed regulations, including disclosure.
"This isn't 'much to do about nothing,'" he warned. "The entire landscape has changed, the assumption is no longer 'hands off the Internet,' it's now 'hand-on the Internet.'"