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FEC won't regulate most online political activity

The Federal Election Commission decided Monday to exempt virtually all political activity on the Internet from the nation’s new campaign finance law.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Regulators brought Internet political advertising under the nation’s campaign finance law Monday but declared that all other political activity on the Internet would be untethered by federal rules.

The three Republicans and three Democrats on the Federal Election Commission unanimously adopted a rule requiring anyone placing a paid political ad on a Web site to abide by federal campaign spending and contribution limits.

But the rule also updates existing FEC regulations to make it clear that all other Internet political activity, such as blogging, e-mail communications and online publications, is not covered by the campaign law.

“Individual online political activity will be protected from FEC restriction regardless of whether the individual acts alone or as part of a group, and regardless of whether the individual acts in coordination with a candidate or acts independently,” said Commission Chairman Michael E. Toner.

The 2002 campaign finance law requires that ads for or against federal candidates be paid for with money regulated by the law, which limits contributions by individuals to $2,000 and bans union and corporation donations.

In its initial interpretation of the law in 2002, the FEC said no political activity on the Internet was covered. But a federal court judge ruled in 2004 that the commission had to craft a new rule that at the very least covered paid political advertising on the Internet.

The ruling, and the commission’s decision not to appeal it, sparked fears among some Internet users that the panel might adopt broader restrictions. But Toner said the new rule gives a “categorical and unqualified” exemption to all individual and group political activity on the Internet, except for paid advertising.

Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub described the new rule as “a win, win, win” for all groups anxious about how the commission would respond to the court order.

Hans A. von Spakovsky, appointed to the commission by President Bush in January, said the rule would not have been necessary had the commission appealed the court ruling. He urged Congress to pass legislation exempting all types of political activity over the Internet from regulation.

Under the new rule, bloggers on the Internet would be entitled to the same exemption from the campaign finance law that newspapers and other traditional forms of media have long received.

“There will be no second class citizens among members of the media,” Toner said.

The rule also allows union members and corporate employees to use their work computers and other electronic devices for political activity without running afoul of campaign law restrictions, as long they do it on their own time and are not coerced to engage in such activity by the union or corporation.