Citizens Urge FEC to Stay Away from the Internet

(January 12, 2000) The FEC has been inundated with emails from citizens opposed to FEC regulation of political speech on the Internet. The FEC solicited comments in November in a Notice of Inquiry regarding campaign activity on the Internet.

Related Pages
Tech Law Journal Summary of FEC Proceding Regarding Campaign Activity on the Internet.
FEC's Notice of Inquiry, 11/1/99.

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) issued a Notice of Inquiry (NOI) on November 1, 1999 stating that it was examining many questions regarding application of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) to activity on the Internet.

This NOI revealed that the FEC is considering treating common activities such as email and hyperlinking as political contributions or expenditures under the FECA, and hence subject to FEC regulation, reporting requirements, and/or contribution limits.

The FEC has already received over a thousand comments by email alone. Most are a single line to several paragraphs in length. They have been printed out. They fill four separate three inch thick ring binders.

Related Story: FEC to Review Campaign Activity on the Internet, 11/8/99.

One FEC staffer who has gone through the four volumes told Tech Law Journal that he found "four or five" comments which support some sort of FEC action to regulate political activity on the Internet.

The vast majority of the comments come from individuals who use the Internet, and are opposed to application of federal election laws to communication on the Internet. Some comments expressed polite opposition. Some were openly hostile.

The most common thought expressed in these comments was that the FEC should not regulate the Internet. Here is a sampling of comments:

"Stay away from the Internet."


"I am astonished that the FEC would even consider the FEC "Notice of Inquiry.""

Most of the comments cited freedom of speech or expression as the reason the FEC should leave the Internet alone:

"We demand the right to free speech."

"Since when does the FEC have the right to decide what can be thought and communicated."

"... censorship of political ideas harms the basic right of Americans to free speech and to associate together to discuss ideas."

Some comments were derogatory:

"What can you be thinking?"

"... you parasites who inhabit Washington DC ... have no right to inhibit our freedom of speech ..."

"Why don't you ____'s find a real job."

"You parasites can kiss my ass! Have you ever read the Constitution? ... Respect free speech, and go get some real jobs."

Some comments suggested that the FEC has sinister political motives:

"Seems like they are always trying to interfere with the little guy."

"If new restrictions were added to the Internet, that would create a government-imposed bias toward well-entrenched organizations with massive financial support in traditional media."

"Sounds like another attempt to limit the free speech of conservative voices by an out of control liberal government."

Many of the comments went into details. The most common subjects were email lists, chat rooms, anonymity, and hyperlinking. Commenters frequently expressed opposition to FEC regulation of email lists. Similarly, a common comment was that individuals ought to be able to communication anonymously on the Internet about politics, without having to report their names to the FEC.

Groups, Companies and Political Parties have also filed comments. See for example:
AOL Comments, 1/7/00.
EPIC Comments, 1/4/00.
CDT Comments, 1/6/00.

Many comments argued that the FEC should not hold the sponsors of chat rooms or bulletin boards responsible for statements made by others. Many also stated that hyperlinking to a candidate's web site should not be treated as a political contribution.

Some comments addressed the language in the statute which exempts the news media. The FEC's Notice of Inquiry asked if and when Internet publications should qualify as news media. Some comments argued for inclusion of web sites as news media. For example: "Online, EVERYONE is a publisher and there should be no restrictions on the political content they publish."

A lawyer from Indiana who publishes political information via a list serve had this to say: "As asserted and recognized in ACLU v. Miller, ApolloMedia Corporation v Reno, and Texas United Educational Fund, Inc. et. al. v G. W. Bush, et. al. the Internet is today's equivalent of the American colonial "Liberty Tree" and the instant distinction contravenes all federal and state constitutional formulations of free speech."

Tech Law Journal found some comments which support FEC regulation of campaign activity on the Internet. For example:

"I favor including some web sites as contributions -- the sophisticated, expensive ones."

"Unregulated use of the Internet could give candidates an unfair advantage over other candidates not having access to the Internet."

As a part of this inquiry, the FEC is examining whether Internet publications may qualify as "press" within the meaning of the Federal Election Campaign Act, and hence, are exempt. Tech Law Journal is affected by this proceeding. Readers may wish to take this into consideration in assessing the objectivity of this article.