Campaign Finance Laws Stifle the Electronic Soapbox

As the increasingly wired Year 2000 political races heat up, we are faced with considerable uncertainty-and some ominous initial signals-over the application of campaign finance laws to campaign-related speech and political activities on the Internet.

So far, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) has failed to recognize the unique aspects of the Internet as a political venue and therefore has failed to adopt a policy approach that maps the objectives of campaign finance restrictions onto this new medium in a manner consistent with the First Amendment.

This is a mistake. The campaign finance laws of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) were developed to monitor political activities in the centralized, limited and expensive media of radio, TV and print.

The Internet, on the other hand, is uniquely decentralized, global, abundant, inexpensive, interactive and user-

controlled. It supports a diverse range of content-text, graphics, audio and video, chat rooms, e-mail lists, newsgroups and World Wide Web sites linked on a global basis-much of it spontaneous and independent from campaign committees and political parties.

The blanket application to the Internet of campaign finance restrictions designed with other media in mind has perverse results, posing substantial risks to online political expression and activity.

The concern is not that the large national parties or organized interests will suffer; it's that the smaller organizations and individuals that the Internet promises to empower may be silenced. Such a result would discourage grass-roots efforts of the very type that campaign finance laws were intended to enable and encourage.

The First Amendment freedom to associate and to speak should be encouraged in the world of the Internet. Opening the political dialogue to grass-roots efforts with no official organization is the essence of the Internet's democratic potential.

The FEC has, however, started down the path of restriction. Its decisions to treat the Internet as it does other media would move us further from the goal of equalizing political influence by permitting only well-established organizations that strictly adhere to FEC standards the right to be involved in electoral debate.

For example, registration requirements triggered by contributions, designed to shed light on the influence of donors on elected officials, may force individuals to identify themselves to the federal government and the public at large even when they're engaged merely in the online equivalent of posting a sign in their front yard. Rather than encouraging the participation of individual citizens, such disclosure requirements may chill the increasingly privacy-conscious public from expressing their opinions.

The ensuing decrease in online political discussion also will inhibit an improvement in the quality of debate.

The Internet fosters what the Supreme Court has called a "never-ending worldwide conversation." As such, the court has held, expression on the Internet is entitled to the highest level of protection under the First Amendment.

It would be worse than ironic if rules designed to de-emphasize the unfair advantage of money, to broaden the diversity of groups that can have an impact on the election process and to "return our electoral process to the people" were applied to deter individuals from using the "electronic soapbox" of the Internet.

More recently, there has been a hint of change from the FEC, with bolder calls for radical redefinition of the campaign finance law's application to the Internet. In particular, FEC commissioners David Mason and Karl Sandstrom have called on the FEC to reconsider its role regarding the Internet.

The FEC should recognize that a large portion of the political activity in cyberspace does not merit regulation under FECA. The FEC and, if necessary, Congress, should account for the specific characteristics of this vibrant new communications medium and exempt much of what occurs there from regulation under campaign finance law.

--Ari Schwartz is a policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, D.C.

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