Keeping Free Speech Free

This week, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) voted to exempt much political communication on the Internet from the provisions of the McCain-Feingold finance law. This action is a partial win on free-speech rights, but bad news on government control of the Internet.

A few years ago, the FEC issued regulations exempting the Internet from the just-passed McCain-Feingold law, but U.S. district Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly overturned them, arguing that the commission’s rules undermined the law. The nation’s blogosphere lit up with fear that bloggers and other Web site owners would be subjected to spending limits of US$2,000 and bans on corporate or union donations if they discussed or promoted political candidates.

A Solid Win

The online community’s most extreme fears are now alleviated as the new rules exempt blogging, e-mail communications, and online publications from most campaign law. Paid political advertisements, such as banners or pop-ups that advocate or oppose a federal candidate or solicit contributions to their candidacy, must be accompanied by a disclaimer. The new regulations also allow for bloggers to be paid by a candidate or committee without having to publish a disclosure.

Given the alternative of strict campaign finance laws on the Net, the FEC ruling is a pretty solid win for free speech, and a no-brainer. It’s hard to imagine a bunch of bloggers enthusiastically supporting a party they don’t like just because of money.

Those who make that argument might as well argue against democracy and free will. It’s naive to think that money is the only thing that motivates people, especially when it comes to something as important as the way the country is governed.

Bloggers celebrated when the new regulations were revealed and Robert Lenhard, Vice Chairman of the Commission, confirmed that “the law was never intended to regulate private citizen communication on the Internet.”

Losing Freedom

What Lenhard says is true, but the Commission originally thought that the law shouldn’t apply at all, making it worth considering what’s been won and lost as a result of the court-mandated revision. What’s been won is a degree of tech-neutrality — the idea that the free speech of online writers should be protected just as it is in the offline world. FEC Chairman Michael Toner summed this concept up nicely when he said “there will be no second-class citizens among members of the media.”

What’s been lost, however, is a degree of freedom on the Net. When the Internet was completely free from campaign finance regulations, it was also free from government interference in that area. Now that the government has reached one finger into cyberspace, it won’t be long until the full hand tries to follow. Already, some are hinting at the need for more government rules.

“My one personal disappointment is the FEC’s draft decision not to require disclaimers on blogs where the bloggers have been paid by campaigns,” said Loyola Law School professor Rick Hasen.

Speak Your Mind

Those who like the idea of government control of blogs need to consider that the explosion of the blogging community and the rich environment that is the World Wide Web wouldn’t be close to what it is today if the government served as a referee. On a more philosophical level, consider also that having the Net free from campaign finance controls while the real space is under regulation serves as an interesting and informative experiment.

Would campaign spending really shoot out of control on the Net and threaten to skew elections in a way that is unfair? Or is it the case that restrictions in the physical world impede debate and free speech?

Americans live in a democratic country where every citizen is charged with the important duty of making a decision after listening to arguments from both sides. Given this, everyone should be free to speak their mind on or off the Internet. The FEC made the right decision given the circumstances, but now the door is open for more government control.

Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.

Leave a Comment

Please sign in to post or reply to a comment. New users create a free account.

Technewsworld Channels