There was some good news this week for bloggers and their fight to stay as free and unregulated as they wanna be. The only problem is, hardly anyone was paying attention.
On Wednesday, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, a Republican from Texas, introduced legislation in the House designed to make an end-run around the Federal Election Commission’s recent drive to include the Internet under campaign finance rules. In a letter to members of the House, Hensarling wrote, “Today, I introduced the Online Freedom of Speech Act in order prevent federal regulation of political speech over the Internet. This bill would amend federal election law to specifically exclude communications over the Internet from the definition of ‘public communication.’” (In many respects, the bill is similar to the one that Democratic Minority Leader Harry Reid introduced in the Senate last month.)
The bill comes on the heels of a Federal Election Commission (FEC) vote in March to move forward with rules that would bring the Internet under the reach of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation. While the blogosphere flew into a collective rage over the proposal, the commission is actually taking a pretty light approach to the issue. As FEC Chairman Scott E. Thomas told the Washington Post, “[A]t least at this stage, we don’t plan to regulate the vast majority of what individuals do [online] and the vast majority of what bloggers do. The FEC never did have any intent to overregulate citizens who want to use Internet technology for communicating in the area of politics.”
One point that has been almost completely lost in the debate is the fact that the new legislation wasn’t the FEC’s idea in the first place. In fact, in their public comments, the commissioners are hardly enthusiastic about the prospect of writing new rules. The only reason this is an issue at all is because the FEC lost a federal court case last fall brought by the Bush reelection campaign and the Republican National Committee. The suit sought to block some Internet campaign contributions, a response to 527 groups that the GOP felt were slamming the president unfairly. As a result, the agency is now forced to rewrite a number of campaign finance rules that originally exempted online political activities.
But that hasn’t stopped many bloggers on the left and right alike from crying foul over an issue they didn’t take the time to fully understand. Their fear was fueled by an irresponsible interview FEC Chairman Brad Smith gave to CNET in early March, in which he answered questions by posing his own rhetorical questions, such as “The real question is: Would a link to a candidate’s page be a problem? If someone sets up a home page and links to their favorite politician, is that a contribution?” This, needless to say, sent bloggers’ keyboards clacking away, predicting the end of the blogosphere and the curtailment of free speech.
The frenzy over Smith’s comments has continued to overshadow the story, even as it has evolved. Those raising the hue and cry over government regulation of the Internet would do well to take a second look — they might be pleasantly surprised.