New Net political rules a fine compromise

Rules strike a balance between free speech and campaign reform.

The FEC's new rules about Internet politicking are either a sign of a hands-off attitude towards blogs or represent greater control of paid online advertising, according to which headline you read. It's both of course. And why is that so confusing? EJ Dionne of the Post says the decision walks a middle line between two core values:

The decision could be looked at as a classic political compromise: Campaign reformers got something they wanted (the Web would not be allowed to become the loophole that ate all campaign finance regulations), while bloggers got something they wanted (freedom to inform, opine, fulminate and enrage, i.e., to speak their minds).

But the decision was better than your usual split-the-difference Washington sausage-making because it acknowledged that two serious principles are at stake and because it sought to make sure that regulations would be applied uniformly across media outlets.

The two principles are free speech and the ability of our democratic political system to protect itself from corruption.

Since speech typically includes paying for the platform on which to speak, the two are always at odds to some degree. Naturally, the breakthrough of the Internet is that speech is virtually free, unlike with television. But of course, speech on the Internet as with every medium also takes the form of advertising - and sometimes it's hard to parse out when something is individual speech and when it's advertising.

As Justices John Paul Stevens and Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in their 2003 decision upholding the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, unregulated campaign contributions can have "a corrupting influence or give rise to the appearance of corruption." ...

That's why Congress should resist any bill that would overturn the FEC's shrewd ruling and let money slosh around freely on the Internet. ... There's a catch, though: We have little idea of how the Internet will develop in the coming years or how campaigns will use it. As both The Post and the New York Times reported over the weekend, campaigns are increasingly clever at using new technologies to reach voters and attack opponents. It will be more difficult to distinguish between individual partisans and political parties themselves.

In this situation, a large dose of humility is in order. It would be wonderful if the Internet proved to be as brilliantly self-correcting as its enthusiasts claim it will be. Let's hope partisan bloggers on the one side help expose abuses by partisan bloggers on the other.

But let's also remember what Stevens and O'Connor said about political dollars, that "money, like water, will always find an outlet."

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