The blog scare

There's panic over the prospect that the FEC will regulate blogs, but is it just a scare tactic?

By Tim Grieve
Published March 9, 2005 2:37PM (EST)

FEC Commissioner Bradley Smith set off a firestorm of blog-angst last week when he suggested, during an interview with CNET, that McCain-Feingold and a federal court's ruling on it could lead to federal regulation of all sorts of political internet activity. It had the feel of one of those it's-so-bad-it-can't-be-true stories -- like that urban legend about how the post office was going to start charging us all five cents for each email message we send -- and it's looking more and more like it might be just that.

Although Smith is an FEC commissioner, he's also a skeptic about the usefulness and feasibility of campaign finance laws, and he's no fan of McCain-Feingold. Is it possible that his comments -- suggesting that both bloggers and internet companies like Salon and Slate could run afoul of the FEC merely by linking to a candidate's site -- were meant as a scare tactic, a way to stir up more opposition to the regulation of campaign finance?

A few calm voices in the blogosphere have raised that suggestion, and now John McCain and Russ Feingold themselves seem to be agreeing. The senators issued a joint statement yesterday in which they said that the regulating-the-blogosphere panic was simply "misinformation" from opponents of campaign finance reform.

"A recent federal court decision requires the Federal Election Commission to open a new rulemaking on internet communications," McCain and Feingold said in the statement. "The FEC will be looking at whether and how paid advertising on the internet should be treated, i.e., should it be treated differently than paid advertising on television or radio. This is an important issue -- since [McCain-Feingold] outlawed soft money, we need to make sure that the FEC doesn't try once again to subvert the law by creating loopholes. So far, the FEC has not even proposed new regulations. When it does so, there will be ample opportunity for comment and debate about whatever proposal the FEC makes."

The senators said that the issue raised by the court has "nothing to do with private citizens communicating on the Internet. There is simply no reason -- none -- to think that the FEC should or intends to regulate blogs or other internet communications by private citizens. Suggestions to the contrary are simply the latest attempt by opponents of reform to whip up baseless fears."

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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