The internet is under assault. At the Federal Communications Commission, regulators are hard at work crafting a plan that would turn the internet into a taxable utility. In Congress, lawmakers are determining whether and how best to tax the sales that occur on the internet. And over at the Federal Election Commission, the regulation of political speech that takes place on the internet is back on the table.
In October, then FEC Vice Chairwoman Ann M. Ravel promised that she would renew a push to regulate online political speech following a deadlocked commission vote that would have subjected political videos and blog posts to the reporting and disclosure requirements placed on political advertisers who broadcast on television. On Wednesday, she will begin to make good on that promise.
“Some of my colleagues seem to believe that the same political message that would require disclosure if run on television should be categorically exempt from the same requirements when placed in the Internet alone,” Ravel said in an October statement. “As a matter of policy, this simply does not make sense.”
“In the past, the Commission has specifically exempted certain types of Internet communications from campaign finance regulations,” she lamented. “In doing so, the Commission turned a blind eye to the Internet’s growing force in the political arena.”
On Wednesday, the FEC will hold a public hearing on a variety of rules that are subject to amendment so that they can comport with the Supreme Court’s ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC. On that docket will be issues relating to disclosure requirements, earmarking, and a variety of other rules. But the FEC will also hear comments regarding now FEC Chairwoman Ravel’s preference that the commission revisit a 2006 rule that exempts blogs and other online political speech from regulation.
Under a 2006 FEC rule, free political videos and advocacy sites have been free of regulation in a bid to boost voter participation in politics. Only Internet videos that are placed for a fee on websites, such as the Washington Examiner, are regulated just like normal TV ads.
Ravel’s statement suggests that she would regulate right-leaning groups like America Rising that posts anti-Democrat YouTube videos on its website.
FEC Chairman Lee E. Goodman, a Republican, said if regulation extends that far, then anybody who writes a political blog, runs a politically active news site or even chat room could be regulated. He added that funny internet campaigns like “Obama Girl,” and “Jib Jab” would also face regulations.
“Regulation of the internet has not gone away inside the commission, it has just gone underground,” FEC Commissioner and former Chairman Lee Goodman told HotAir. “Three Democratic commissioners continue to vote to maintain regulatory authority over internet commentary in a case-by-case basis in the enforcement process. That’s not very transparent to the American people. That’s why I have an obligation to call them out.”
If this sounds alarmist to you, it should. Some fear that subjecting online posts or videos that mention a candidate’s name and remain accessible to the public 60 days out from an election to the disclosure requirements imposed on political advertisers would effectively censor political speech.
Even those who cannot imagine this constitutionally dubious attack on free speech moving forward are leery of Ravel and her priorities.
“Before Ms. Ravel became chairwoman, the California commissioners investigated whether there was a problem with so-called dark money on the Internet,” Ronald Rotunda wrote in The Wall Street Journal in November. “We held hearings, and the bipartisan group of commissioners found nothing warranting regulation. But Ms. Ravel insisted that there was a problem, and claimed that bloggers admitted to her that they receive undisclosed funding from partisan interests.”
“That sounded ominous, and reporters asked her who these bloggers were. She refused to identify them but asserted, ‘I suspect it is fairly common,’” he continued.
If it is so common, why was the commission unable to discover these bloggers? If these people told Ms. Ravel that they are accepting bribes from others interested in issues or candidates, why did she withhold the information from the rest of the commission? In the end Democrats and Republicans on the FPPC objected to her proposal, and it never came to a vote.
The regulation Ms. Ravel first proposed in California is dangerous on many levels. Dictators in Iran, China, North Korea and elsewhere want to censor the Internet. If California or the FEC regulate Internet political speech, we can be sure that these dictators would justify their own political censorship by pointing to the United States. This would cripple U.S. efforts to protect Internet freedom.
In a response, Ravel insisted that Rotunda’s accusations were a “distorted mischaracterization” of her earlier statement. She added that having a public hearing on this matter, like that which will occur tomorrow, is the one of the FEC’s responsibilities to the public.
Ravel has promised that she would lead a review of the guidelines that exempt internet posts and videos from FEC regulation, and it is probably prudent to take her at her word.