FEC members urge caution in regulating online campaigning

Tuesday, May 9, 2000

David Mason isn’t convinced the Internet is all it’s cracked up to be — at least in terms of politics. Not yet anyway.

“The Internet thus far has arguably had no more effect than the development of direct mail in the 1970s, and certainly less, at least to date, than the introduction of television,” Mason, a Republican member of the Federal Election Commission, told the Senate Rules Committee last week. “There is no Internet application to compare, for instance, to the Kennedy-Nixon debates.”

He said he disagreed with the idea that the Internet would bring only the best in political speech, noting that it also harbors hackers, password thieves and pornographers. For now, he said, the Internet’s key political impact has been in the realm of campaign finance — “the one area of Internet activity that nearly everyone agrees should be regulated.”

“I believe the Internet’s potential for good will be best fostered by regulatory restraint rather than by government efforts to shape and control the medium,” he said.

Marsh joined fellow Commissioner Karl Sandstrom, a Democrat, in testifying before the Rules Committee on May 3, urging senators to carefully consider campaign-finance legislation and its impact on online political speech.

For the past two months, the committee has held hearing after hearing, leading up to one scheduled for May 17 in which members plan to debate and vote on several key campaign-finance bills. One measure likely to be debated is the Internet Freedom Protection Act sponsored by Sens. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Robert Bennett, R-Utah, and Conrad Burns, R-Mont.

Burns told the committee that the bill would ensure that individuals engaging in online political speech would not be subject to the same regulations as political action committees, political parties or corporations.

“If an American citizen feels strongly enough about a candidate or issue to create a Web site to express his views, he should not be subject to oversight by federal election bureaucrats,” Burns said. “Instead, the government should act to keep the Internet a free-speech zone.”

Sandstrom agreed that the FEC’s first efforts to deal with the burgeoning effect of the Internet on elections found commissioners reluctant to give up their old regulatory ways.

“The assumption was that our regulations took precedence and Internet users would just have to adapt,” Sandstrom told the committee. “Over time it has become apparent that the confidence with which we began regulation has begun to evaporate.”

He said the commission recognizes that its existing regulations must be revised to account for the freewheeling nature of the World Wide Web. He said that the FEC had already begun to make such revisions.

In one key advisory opinion, the FEC granted Bill Bradley permission to seek and accept campaign contributions online. Sandstrom said that soon after the opinion was released, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., raised considerable amounts of money to defeat George W. Bush in the New Hampshire primary.

“Most of the money he raised, it can be safely assumed, was from individuals who had never before contributed, and who gave because of the Internet,” Sandstrom said.

Most significantly, the FEC earlier this year began a broad investigation into adapting its rules to make room for online campaigning. But the two commissioners said they doubted changes would come before the November general election.

“The commission does not consider the Internet a threat to the continued vitality of our election laws,” Sandstrom said. “Quite to the contrary, the commission is coming to see that our campaign-disclosure laws and Internet politics serve the same purpose of providing the electorate with the information that it needs to make informed decisions.”

Phillip Taylor, a freelance contributor, works for the Daily Press in Newport News, Va.