Campaigns seek Web guidance

The use of the Internet by political campaigns has created new challenges for the Federal Election Commission, which next month plans to formally seek comment on how a campaign finance law affects candidates who use the Internet to raise funds.

The FEC plans to look into how the Federal Election Campaign Act applies to the Internet, and what it finds could lead to new regulations dictating how candidates can use the World Wide Web to advertise for and solicit contributions. The regulations also would define candidates' rights to certain domain names and clear up other Internet use issues.

There are no specific regulations that apply to the use of the Internet in national campaigns, and the FEC has handled Internet-related inquiries from campaign committees by issuing advisory opinions.

As campaigns for next year's presidential and congressional elections gear up, many are closely following opinions made by the commission, which is expected to issue another advisory opinion next month in response to questions from George W. Bush's campaign committee.

The Bush campaign asked how it should assess costs for Internet activities, including e-mail and links from its campaign site, located at www.georgewbush.com, and it asked about the implications of Internet activities by supporters, FEC Commissioner David Mason said.

Scott McClellan, a spokesman for the Bush campaign, said the request is an attempt to gain clarification on those and other issues.

"The Internet plays an important role in political campaigns these days, and issues related to it have yet to be addressed, and we are just asking for some guidance," McClellan said.

The campaign committee for Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who is up for re-election next year, is watching for the FEC's opinion on the Bush request because the committee expects the opinion to clarify how aggressively a campaign can use the Web to raise money, said Linus Catignani, executive director of Frist's campaign.

Frist's campaign site currently is "contribution-friendly," Catignani said. But until further guidance is issued by the FEC, Catignani will not use the Web to aggressively seek contributions.

"The ramifications of the advisory opinion [are] going to be pretty far-reaching," Catignani said. "With as quickly as the Internet is changing, the FEC or someone will have to keep up with regulating it because I'm sure there will be regulations."

Mason said he believes the advisory opinion approach to interpreting the Federal Election Campaign Act regarding campaign Internet use has been too piecemeal.

"In the last year I've been bothered by the fact that we are making these decisions on an ad hoc basis and without what I view as [an] adequate framework for how we are going to approach Internet activity," Mason said. "Because they have been ad hoc, it's a little hard to derive any clear set of principles out of them."

Mason said the notice of inquiry, which will be issued on the Federal Register, will solicit comments on and how to interpret or alter FEC regulations in light of the Internet's wide use. He said one of the problems the FEC is encountering concerns the Federal Election Campaign Act, which has not been revised substantially since 1979 and was written with broadcast and newspaper advertising in mind.

"The Internet is very different from either of those technologies," Mason said. "That's one of the reasons we are encountering some difficulty in figuring out how the act applies."

The FEC also is expected to rule soon on a complaint from Bush's campaign about a satirical Web site that lampoons the Texas governor's official presidential campaign site.

The complaint, which the FEC declined to discuss, concerns a Web site located at www.gwbush.com and created by Zack Exley, a computer consultant from Somerville, Mass. The site contains a series of unsubstantiated stories referring to Bush's alleged drug abuse that the Bush campaign says are libelous.

The Bush campaign's complaint states that the site violates the Federal Election Campaign Act because it does not include proper disclaimers identifying the person who is paying for the site and because Exley has not filed an independent expenditure report or registered a political action committee. Other campaigns face similar woes. A private citizen who opposes Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) registered the domain name www.feinstein2000.com and posted negative material about Feinstein. In New York, the still-unofficial Senate campaigns of Hillary Rodham Clinton and New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani are plagued by parody Web sites.

Doug Boxer, a co-founder of the Digital Democracy Group, predicted that parody sites will become another tactic in the "bag of dirty tricks" used by some campaign consultants while campaign officials wait for FEC guidance.

"I think using a Web site is tremendous tool for political campaigns, one that will only grow stronger and stronger," Boxer said. "I look to the FEC to provide strong leadership to make sure the medium isn't being abused. In this case I don't think regulation of the Internet is a bad thing. I think it's a necessary step."

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