Free speech ? or campaign contribution?

Does a hyperlink have a dollar value? Is a "fan site" the electronic equivalent

of a campaign donation? Should the Federal Election Commission attempt to

regulate political campaigning on the Internet?

"No," is the overwhelming reply from the 1,228 Internet users, political

committees and free speech organizations who responded to an FEC call for

public comments about the need to control politics on the Internet.

From the Republican National Committee to the Center for Democracy and

Technology to average citizens, the message is consistent. As Internet user

Joe Stoneburner of Zanesville, Ohio, put it, "The Internet is doing fine

without government rules. Leave it alone."

The tenor of the advice doesn't surprise FEC commissioner David Mason.

After all, he said, "most of the comments came in over the Internet." But

Mason said the FEC, which enforces rules on campaign finances, needs to

study the Net's impact on political campaigns.

The commission has been asked to rule on several Internet matters, including

a complaint that a New York congressional candidate violated campaign rules

by putting a link on his company's World Wide Web site that lead to his

campaign Web site. Was the hyperlink an unreported election expenditure?

When the Federal Election Campaign Act was written in 1971, Congress

never envisioned the Internet as an influential player in politics. But

increasingly, it is.

"Compared to other communications technology, the Internet is probably

in third place behind TV and newspapers," Mason said.

The act, passed to keep money from corrupting the democratic process,

requires candidates, parties and political action committees to file reports

disclosing their election fund-raising and spending. And it limits how much

money individuals and organizations can contribute to election campaigns.

But the act is aimed at big-money campaigns that rely on high-priced

advertising to reach the public. "A lot of the existing regulations were

drawn up with TV or other older communications technologies in mind," Mason

said.

Now the Internet is proving it can reach a vast audience — and cheaply.

Web sites can be set up and run for almost nothing. Via e-mail and chat

rooms, they can provide interactive contact with candidates. Online video

provides a TV-like presentation of candidates.

The question is, should they also be regulated? And if so, how?

Unlike radio, television and newspapers, which are controlled by corporations

or wealthy individuals, the Internet is open to all. "Individuals can engage

in political speech outside the control of candidates, political parties

and the traditional media gatekeepers," wrote Deirdre Mulligan, a lawyer

at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

The Internet promises to "reinvigorate political discourse," she wrote

the FEC. But that won't happen if the FEC regulates individuals on the Net

the way it regulates radio and TV commercials produced by campaigns and

political parties, she said.

A key consideration for the FEC is what constitutes a campaign contribution.

Under current law, it is "anything of value" given to influence the outcome

of an election for federal office. Individuals must report contributions

of more than $250 a year in cash, goods or services to a candidate. Organizations

must report contributions of more than $1,000 a year.

But what is the value of a Web site that promotes a candidate? Should

hardware costs be included as a contribution? What about Web sites and links

set up by organizations, corporations or labor unions? How should the FEC

assess mass e-mailings?

"The traditional rules do not apply here," said Patrick Ruffini, who

runs a Web site promoting George W. Bush's presidential candidacy. Grassroots

Web sites do not require large amounts of money, he said. They can be created

by "ordinary people who otherwise would not have been involved." Such political

activity on the Net "is unsuited for government regulation." Indeed, "regulating

it would undermine a natural process that is already beginning to level

the playing field," Ruffini wrote to the FEC.

It already may be too late to stop the FEC from regulating Internet

campaigning. The agency has issued a number of rulings, which, when considered

together, "are confusing," Mason said. Clarifying them is part of the reason

the commission wants to take a broader look at Internet campaigning.

Whether that leads to extensive regulation, "That's what we have to

decide," Mason said.

Early returns

Here is a sample of public comments the FEC has collected on regulating

e-politics:

"Any regulations implemented by the commission while the Internet is in

its early stages of development may prematurely stunt the growth of this

new medium."

— Republican National Committee

"Disclosure requirements may chill the increasingly privacy-wary public

from expressing their opinions."

— Center for Democracy and Technology

"Independent activities by individuals on the Internet that do not meet

this expenditure threshold [$25,000] should not be regulated."

— Common Cause

"The sheer scope and newness of the Internet as a popular communications

device" suggest "a relatively hands-off regulatory approach." — The state of Connecticut

"We urge the commission to forgo any effort at rule-making at least until

after the 2000 election cycle."

— AFL-CIO

"Grassroots political activity on the Internet is unsuited for government

regulation. The traditional rules do not apply here."

— Patrick Ruffini, the Bush 2000 Network

"The government has no business regulating these sites as far as being considered

campaign contributions. It's free speech, and we ought to be able to say

what we want."

— Brent Mendenhall, Nevada, Mo.

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