FEC opens Internet campaigning issues up for public comment

Monday, November 1, 1999

The Federal Election Commission last week said it wouldn’t count independent Web sites supporting presidential contender George W. Bush as campaign contributions and gave a non-partisan Web site the green light to conduct online election activity.

But the commission, during an Oct. 28 hearing, declined to offer any more guidance on possible regulation of Internet campaigning, saying it could rule only on the specific matters at hand. Instead, it opened the issue for debate, asking for public comment about how far the agency should regulate Internet campaigning, if at all.

“Candidates, parties and political action committees have apparently concluded that the Internet is a powerful campaign tool with the potential to significantly influence the outcome of federal elections,” the commission reported in an official statement.

During the period of inquiry, the FEC plans to consider such questions as: In which situations should political advocacy on the Internet be regulated? Should individual political Web sites be subject to federal election laws? What value, if any, does a hyperlink have? Should corporate Web sites be barred from political commentary?

The agency says it soon plans to publish the notice of inquiry in the Federal Register.

Though an official decision was postponed, the commission agreed to allow independent Web sites to operate without interference from federal election law. The Bush campaign had asked commissioners to rule that the Web sites don’t constitute a campaign contribution.

While the commissioners wavered on the issue of independent Web sites endorsing candidates, they unanimously approved the online operation of the Democracy Network, a non-partisan election information site supported by the League of Women Voters.

The commission told the operators of Democracy Network that their work wouldn’t fall under federal contribution or spending restrictions because it doesn’t support or oppose particular candidates. Democracy Network, which will become part of America Online’s official election coverage next year, plans to invite candidates to respond to e-mail and provide the site with information about their positions.