November 4, 2005

ALLISON HAYWARD WRITES on the House’s rejection of the Online Freedom of Speech Act:

The bill itself was reasonable and modest in scope. It would have codified existing regulations — which are currently the law under which we labor — exempting the Internet from special rules that apply to “public communications.” These rules have the most impact for political parties (especially state and local parties), and groups like some PACs that “allocate” — that is, use money raised outside the federal rules for some general expenses. They also affect which messages require disclaimers — the little “Paid for by” tag you see on direct mail and TV ads.

While the technical reach of the bill was modest, the impact of its defeat may not be. The Federal Election Commission is currently rewriting the existing Internet rule under a court order. It may be that the FEC’s approach will be modest — say, to require disclaimers on paid advertisements and spam on the Internet. But it is also possible that regulators will look at the bill’s failure as some endorsement of the need for greater regulation, because the FEC has also opened the question of whether Internet journalists are exempt from regulation as “press” — an issue not addressed by the legislation but one of great significance to bloggers. Certainly, the bill’s passage would have preempted the legal necessity for the FEC to involve itself in Internet rulemaking. . . .

Why did the measure not pass? Perhaps, in part, because the campaign against the bill was rife with falsehoods about the effect of the exemption. “Reform” supporters like Democracy 21’s Fred Wertheimer, the Campaign Legal Center’s Trevor Potter, and the American Enterprise Institute’s’s Norm Ornstein castigated the bill’s motives (and supporters) in harsh terms. They maintained that it would open up the federal system to soft-money abuses. They alleged that corporations could spend unlimited sums on campaign ads at the behest of candidates. The same claims were made by Rep. Marty Meehan (D., Mass.) and many of the bill’s critics on the House Floor, in what appeared to be a serial recitation of the “reform” talking points.

Read the whole thing.

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