A down payment on political blogging?

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are battling efforts to regulate online politicking. But are they looking to cash in on freedom of speech?

Published April 14, 2005 4:48PM (EDT)

The Federal Election Commission's plans to regulate paid online political advertising sure have ruffled some feathers. While several commissioners have insisted that they will not seek to regulate private email, private blogs, or Internet journalism, legislators don't seemed convinced: They've rushed twin bills to the House and Senate that would bar altogether the commission's extension to the Web of the McCain-Feingold act for campaign finance reform.

The first piece of proposed legislation came last month from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who has called blogging an "important form of political speech." Reid's bill is a simple one-sentence amendment excluding all Internet communication from McCain-Feingold's provisions.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, brought the fight to the House on Wednesday with the introduction of the Online Freedom of Speech Act. Hensarling's legislation mirrors Reid's, but it comes with more powerful rhetoric attached. In a letter to colleagues that Hensarling circulated Thursday, he framed the issue as a battle between Congress and the judiciary: "Unfortunately, a federal judge has ruled that the FEC's previous broad exemption was impermissible, absent clear direction from Congress. Within the next sixty days, the FEC is expected to finalize rules and regulations that could squash not only free speech and political activism, but could well impede innovation and technology -- unless Congress acts now."

Defending free speech and technological innovation are worthy goals, of course, but some have suggested that they're not the real reasons for the recent scare over a crackdown on political blogging. Some in Congress have worked against campaign finance reform; Hensarling's fellow Texan Tom DeLay -- whose unconventional views on campaign finance, election redistricting, and the judiciary are well known -- led an unsuccessful attempt to exempt the Internet from McCain-Feingold's provisions back in 2002. Now that McCain-Feingold is being implemented, it's possible that those who stand to gain from a lack of online regulation are playing on bloggers' fears in order to defang the legislation.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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