FEC Frees All Web Political Communication Except Paid Ads

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Yesterday’s unanimous Federal Election Commission (FEC) ruling on Internet political communication places paid online advertising in the category of “public communication,” subject to campaign finance laws. Bloggers, Web pundits, and all other Internet communicators, however, get carte blanche.

Essentially, the new regulations extend the 2002 federal campaign finance law to paid Web advertising, meaning ads for federal candidates must be paid for with so-called hard money, or contributions by individuals limited to $2,000. In addition, political committees registered with the FEC must place disclaimers on any Web ads they pay for, no matter the ad content. Individuals or groups must include a disclaimer on any paid Web ad that solicits contributions or expressly advocates the election or defeat of a clearly identified federal candidate.

“I do not think this will have a major impact on political advertising on the Internet because of the self-regulation that already exists within the industry,” concluded Michael Bassik, VP Internet advertising at political consulting firm MSHC Partners. He said most online political advertisers have placed disclaimers on their Web ads in the past, and added most online media outlets require paid placements from political advertisers to include such disclaimers.

In effect, suggested Bassik, the new regulations “legitimize the Internet as a political advertising medium” akin to traditional media.

Rebecca Donatelli, chairman of political consulting firm Campaign Solutions, also sees the FEC decision as a good thing because it includes bloggers as full-fledged media. “Anything that brings people into the political process I see as a positive,” she commented.

According to the FEC draft of the ruling, “While no other form of Internet communication is included in the definition of ‘public communication,’ the placement of advertising on another person’s website for a fee includes all potential forms of advertising, such as banner advertisements, streaming video, pop-up advertisements, and directed search results.”

Web sites fall under similar rules when it comes to disclaimers. While disclaimers are never required on an individual’s or group’s Web site, political committees registered with the FEC must include disclaimers on all publicly-accessible sites. Another wrinkle: content placed by state, district, or local party committees on their own sites don’t require disclaimers.

Some email communications also require disclaimers per the new regulations. Though most emails containing political content don’t require disclaimers, FEC registered political committees must include disclaimers when sending “more than 500 substantially similar email communications,” as noted in the draft.

Prominent bloggers are hailing the FEC decision, which affords them the same exemption from campaign finance restrictions that is afforded offline media like TV, radio and newspapers. Indeed, even when individuals who run Web sites accept payment from a federal candidate, political party committee or other political committee, no disclaimer is required. Also, according to the FEC document, public communication doesn’t include republished campaign material that is placed on an individual’s Web site, blog or email, so it’s not considered “coordinated communication.”

Proposed legislation could render the new FEC regulations on political Web ads moot. Sponsored by Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), H.R. 1606 would exclude all Internet communications from being defined as public communication and would allow state parties, corporations, unions and individuals to spend unlimited funds on online ads supporting or opposing federal candidates. It may be voted on this Thursday in the House.

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