It has not received much mainstream media attention, but a huge battle is brewing in Congress this week as the House of Representatives considers two bills that will determine to what extent campaign finance rules apply to the Internet. Support or opposition to these bills does not split neatly along party lines. Indeed, the debate has brought together two opposing players in the blogosphere, the liberal Daily Kos and the conservative Red State. These two mega-blogs support one of the bills, while other members of the Internet community strongly endorse a competing measure.
What should be an easy choice between a bad bill and a good bill has become fractious and complicated. The reason? Fear mixed with a dose of opportunism.
One bill, the Online Freedom of Speech Act, sponsored by Texas Republican Jeb Hensarling, would treat political ads influencing federal elections and transmitted over the Internet differently from political ads that are broadcast on TV or radio or published in newspapers and magazines. Internet ads would not have to conform to rules in place for “public communications” as defined by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA), which banned most soft money in federal campaigns, the huge unlimited contributions from corporations and other large donors to the national political parties. The result? A gaping hole through BCRA that would open the door for all kinds of backdoor funding, through soft money, of political ads on the Internet.
While the Hensarling bill would also exempt bloggers and those who run websites from BCRA, it fails to address a lot of other ways online political discourse could run afoul of the election laws.
For example, even if the Hensarling bill becomes law, bloggers could face disclosure requirements when they endorse a specific federal candidate. Also, if a group of Internet activists operated a political website that took positions on candidates, they could be caught up in Federal Election Commission rules governing “political committees.”
Even Hensarling’s supporters recognize the bill’s limitations. Attorney Adam Bonin, who represents Daily Kos editor Markos Moulitsas Zúniga on campaign finance issues, has written that the bill “is not a comprehensive solution to the question of how political activity on the Internet should be treated under campaign finance laws.”
So you’d think the blogging community would have welcomed a new bill, developed in consultation with the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), a DC-based nonprofit with a long history of advocating for free expression on the Internet. This new bill, the Internet Free Speech Protection Act, is also bipartisan, sponsored by Representatives Tom Allen (D-ME) and Charles Bass (R-NH).
The Allen-Bass bill does not exempt all paid political ads transmitted over the Internet from the campaign finance laws. But it includes very strong language that offers much broader protections to bloggers, websites and Internet journalists than are currently in place under federal law, and that are not even addressed by the Hensarling bill. “We want to keep the Internet free,” Allen told Roll Call. “We just want to shut down the possibility of using coordinated campaign money through the Internet.”