Campaign finance law seeps into cyberspace; Federal judge's ruling alters frontier for 'blogs'
BY JEFF TUTTLE, OF THE NEWS STAFF
As published in the Bangor Daily News
Saturday - March 05, 2005
Deep in cyberspace, Mike Tipping of Orono muses about Maine politics.
But his Internet site, www.mainepolitics.blogspot.com - and thousands of similar sites around the country - could be forced to undergo drastic changes resulting from a federal judge's ruling that campaign finance laws should be extended to the Internet.
The changes, which will be considered by the Federal Election Commission this month, potentially could mean fines to sites that improperly link to official campaign sites or forward candidates' press releases to its members.
Tipping's "Maine Politics" site, just 2 months old, is typical of political "Web logs," in which visitors, known as "bloggers," comment on the political news of the day, which on Friday included discussions of Maine Democrats' recent political ad lampooning state Sen. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville.
"The Internet is the only place anyone can own a printing press," Tipping said Friday from Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he studies political science at Dalhousie University and runs the site from his apartment. "We have to protect that right."
As it stands, Internet communications are exempt from the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, formally known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002.
For instance, blogs were allowed last year to direct visitors to the official Web site of any presidential candidate without that link being considered a contribution to the campaign.
But should the proposed changes take effect, such a connection, as well as "Maine Politics'" current link to the Maine Democratic Party Web site, could be considered coordinated political activity - and potentially illegal donations.
But how much would that link be worth? A penny? A thousand dollars? These are some of the questions the FEC is expected to answer this month when it reconsiders the Internet exemption.
"[The commissioners] will be taking it up sooner rather than later. I don't think there's any question about that," FEC spokesman Ian Stirton said Friday of the coming discussions, although they have not yet been scheduled.
The review comes after a federal judge ruled that any coordinated political activity over the Internet must be regulated. The decision essentially overturned the FEC's 4-2 vote in 2002 to exempt most Internet communications from the law.
"The commission's exclusion of Internet communications ... severely undermines" the purpose of McCain-Feingold, U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly wrote in her decision last fall.
Over the past two years, the Internet has become an indispensable part of political campaigns, most experts agree. Candidates such as Democrat Howard Dean raised millions of dollars in cyberspace, and political blogs became useful forums for campaigns to gauge public opinion on some issues.
Simon Dodd, who this month launched his own Web site, www.olympiasnowe2008.com, seeking to draft U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, to run for president in 2008, said he would closely watch the debate over applying campaign finance law to the Internet.
"I'm not entirely sure what the status of this one is," Dodd, a 25-year-old networks engineer from Indiana, wrote in a Friday e-mail. "But I'm very certain that it's a can of worms."
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