The Musings of

Something full of magic, religion, bullsh*t.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

If you ever injected truth into politics you have no politics.*

Recent comments by Bradley A. Smith, the chairman of the Federal Election Commission have ignited minor debate -- and if not hand wringing, then at least head scratching -- in the blogosphere on the nature of political blog speech and how it should be regulated. Currently, the FEC administers the nation's campaign finance laws. As everyone who has ever suffered through a Newsweek write up on McCain-Feingold knows, there are a plethora of statutory and regulatory limits on who can give, how much they can give, and the amount of disclosure that is necessary for both the donors and the donees. The intention is to preserve fair elections while allowing for as much freedom of expression as possible. The results, of course, have been less than spectacular.

So far, there has been much less regulation of the internet than there has been of the traditional media. Mr. Smith has suggested that this distinction may soon be over. If that is so, we can soon expect new regulation against bloggers who can be seen as making in-kind contributions to candidates. One example being bandied about is nailing bloggers who have direct links to federal candidates' websites. The theory is that if Kos links to Dean's campaign contribution page he is indirectly providing Dean with thousands of dollars, and therefore his action should be considered a campaign contribution and regulated the same way as if he had sent a check to the Dean Campaign for the total amount in his name. (Of course, no one can say where that ferris wheel ride ends. If both my readers -- Hi, Mom & Dad! -- were to visit one of my links, would that qualify as an in-kind donatation?)

Facially, as an issue of fairness, it makes sense. We would expect that would be held to the same standard as The Washington Post itself. The problem is that such regulations are restrictions (albeit constitutionally permissive restrictions) on political speech and they are generally ineffective for two reasons: (1) there are always loopholes and ways around restrictions and (2) political pros will always be willing to exploit those holes (Is there anyone out there who believes that an endorsement on the New York Times editorial page is not worth $2,000?). So the FEC, like a little kid playing Whack-A-Mole, jumps from (loop)hole to (loop)hole, one step behind the violators, bashing away anything that looks like a violation.

While I would argue that campaign spending statutes and FEC regulations run the gamut from useless to counterproductive as currently written and enforced, I believe there are valid reasons for the FEC to leave the blogosphere alone.

First, the market that justified halting undue and undocumented election influence is gone. No longer are we living a time where a single newspaper and a couple of TV stations dominated the media in any particular location. In that closed market it was only too possible for wealthy parties and groups to influence elections through spending. Now, much like the sale of internet goods which has blossomed due to the lack of taxation, the absence of regulation of the internet speech has spawned a near-infinite variety of political voices. Never in the history of mankind have Americans had easy access to such a rainbow of opinion and thought. More importantly, never has the information universe been so closed to domination by a single entity or group. For every person who would donate to Dean because they felt that Kos's link was an endorsement, there are thousands who have become more knowledgeable political consumers thanks to the open dialog of the web.

Second, the self-policing nature of the internet severely decreases the need for disclosure. The Armstrong Williams/pay-for-buzz scandal is a good example. (Off the subject, but has anyone every really been influenced by the writings of Armstrong Williams?). Where we once were forced to rely on a few reporters attempting to ferret our illicit deeds, now thousands of would-be-internet Bernsteins are digging through the electronic trash of the rich and powerful and exposing everyone's streaked undies. Concerned that George Soros is secretly funneling millions to liberal Democrats? Believe me, Soros will think twice knowing that it is only a matter of time before some nerd gets a whiff of smoke and yells fire so loud that it becomes common knowledge.

Don't get me wrong. I believe that there were always be a threat of Boss Tweedism(particularly on the state level were races are subject to much less scrutiny), but I also believe that an unregulated internet will ultimately decrease the threat of illegal campaign financing and undue influence, not increase it, and that the chilling effect on free speech does not justify the proposed benefits.

Simply put, this is a bad idea. Of course, when has that ever stopped a federal agency?

* Will Rogers
Centinel 4:28 PM #


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