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Tell the FEC Not to Amp Up Internet Regulations

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) is considering amping up its regulation of online political speech—an idea that should be rejected from the get-go. Back in 2006, the FEC adopted a limited approach to regulating the Internet. Some FEC commissioners feel that its approach has grown outdated. But increased regulation of the Internet would threaten both free speech and privacy.

We have the opportunity to nip any new Internet regulations in the bud by convincing the FEC to maintain its commitment to protecting individuals’ online speech. The FEC is accepting comments on whether or not to develop new Internet rules. EFF is submitting comments later this week urging the FEC to leave the current Internet rules in place. But the more comments from the public the better. Submit comments telling the FEC not to amp up its Internet regulations here.

The last time the FEC indicated that it was thinking about adopting regulations that would adversely impact the online community was back in 2005. But after intense criticism from First Amendment proponents—including EFF—the FEC, in 2006, adopted Internet regulations [pdf] limited to (a) paid advertisements and (b) political campaigns, political parties, and political action committees (PACs) that post communications online. The FEC left free and low-cost political commentary exempt from regulation. This was a win for bloggers and other online speakers, as we outline in our Legal Guide for Bloggers.

Now, that victory is under threat. FEC Commissioner Ann Ravel wants to re-examine [pdf] the FEC’s approach to online political speech. Her statement comes after the Commission deadlocked 3-to-3 [pdf] on whether to investigate a non-profit that posted two campaign videos on YouTube without including disclaimers or disclosing production costs. Although the FEC has not yet proposed new rules, it appears that Ravel supports overhauling the regulations around online speech. This could have a huge impact on free and low-cost online political speech, especially if new regulations place complicated and burdensome record-keeping and disclosure requirements on bloggers, YouTube posters, or other online speakers, including those who post anonymously.

As an organization dedicated to transparency, we appreciate the value in increasing public understanding of how money influences elections. However, we do not have confidence that a politically appointed government board will be able to draw a line that separates the individual blogger or YouTuber from deep-pocketed special interest groups without damaging free speech.

Increased regulation of online speech is not only likely to chill participation in the public debate, but it may also threaten individual speakers’ privacy and right to post anonymously.  In so doing, it may undermine two goals of campaign finance reform: protecting freedom of political speech and expanding political participation.

As we stated in our joint comments to the FEC back in 2005 [pdf], “the Internet provides a counter-balance to the undue dominance that ‘big money’ has increasingly wielded over the political process in the past half-century.” We believe that heightened regulation of online political speech will hamper the Internet’s ability to level the playing field.      

Submit your comments to the FEC today and help us stop the Commission from adopting rules that threaten free speech and privacy. Comments are due on Thursday, January 15, 2015.

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