March 29, 2006 | By Matt Zimmerman

FEC Protects Bulk of Internet Speech From Campaign Finance Rules

On Monday, the Federal Election Commission voted unanimously to adopt new regulations [PDF] that would leave Internet-related activities largely untouched by campaign finance rules. Monday's vote marked the culmination of a series of events put into motion in September 2004 when a federal district court ruled that the FEC couldn't categorically exempt the Internet from federal campaign finance rules and forced the agency to draw up new rules accordingly.

The new rules are a big win for bloggers and other online speakers. When the proposed rules were first announced, bloggers across the spectrum raised concerns that the FEC might intrude too far, imposing burdensome recordkeeping regulations and potentially chilling online speakers who wanted to discuss political issues or coordinate volunteers to support various issues. Frequently forgotten, however, was the fact that the FEC had expressed little interest in adopting any kind of Internet regulations in the first place. Indeed, the 2004 court ruling chastised the agency for shielding the Internet more than federal law allowed.

The final rules should put most of the immediate free speech concerns of bloggers to rest. As the introduction to the final rules note, "These final rules therefore implement the regulatory requirements mandated by the Shays district decision by focusing exclusively on Internet advertising that is placed for a fee on another person's website." The FEC has interpreted campaign finance laws (and the admonition of the district court) extremely narrowly, limiting rules regarding spending limits and reporting requirements to instances where paid advertisements are placed on the Internet. Unless they take money in exchange for political advertisements, the bulk of online speakers will remain unaffected by the rule changes.

The new regulations will go into effect in a little over a month.

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