In a March 3 interview with online news outlet CNET, Bradley A. Smith of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) dropped a match in a wheat field, warning of potentially crippling regulations on political blogging. By mid-afternoon, the winds of hyper-linking had spread that raging blaze nationwide, drawing scorching criticism from liberal and conservative bloggers alike.
Will the online revolution in grassroots politicking topple just as it is gathering speed? Have the blogosphere's inroads into the mainstream media's monopoly hit a dead end?
Mr. Smith considers such gloom and doom possible-if not probable. He told CNET that the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, a campaign finance law better known as McCain-Feingold, could apply to internet sites. At issue is whether positive references to particular candidates or links to campaign websites constitute political contributions or expenditures.
For small sites, that question may not matter, but the FEC might value political endorsements on larger sites at more than the $2,000 limit. Such restrictions take on new meaning with the release of a Pew poll last week showing that 75 million Americans used the internet to get political news and information, debate and discuss candidates, or participate directly in the 2004 campaign.
Edward Morrissey, known as Captain Ed on the popular conservative blog "Captain's Quarters," told WORLD that such restrictions could prove fatal for his blog and others: "If we had to start accounting for our time and defending ourselves every time we got accused of coordination-say by simply excerpting from a candidate's position paper in order to make a point-we'd incur legal fees that would intimidate most people into shutting down."
When President Bush first signed McCain-Feingold into law, the six-member FEC granted a blanket exemption to the internet by a 4-2 vote. Last year, however, a federal judge ruled the commission must reexamine that exemption. Mr. Smith and his two fellow Republican commissioners sought to appeal the ruling, but the three Democrats blocked that from happening.
The FEC will post a new internet-regulation proposal on its website for public comment by late March or early April. In an interview with The New York Times, Democratic commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub told bloggers not to worry: "I really don't think, at the end of the day, this commission is going to do anything that affects what somebody sitting at home on their home computer does."
Some have accused Mr. Smith, a staunch supporter of First Amendment free-speech rights, of alarmist tactics meant to stir a bipartisan blogstorm against any internet regulation-including restrictions on paid political advertising.
Such reassurances have hardly assuaged the concerns of most bloggers. "I'm not optimistic," Mr. Morrissey said, echoing the sentiment of most conservatives. Liberal blogger Mark Schmitt has more faith in the FEC, arguing that "major liberal and conservative blogs, even the most openly partisan, could not possibly be affected." But the more popular liberal blogs "Daily Kos" and "Atrios" do not share Mr. Schmitt's minority view, calling for monitoring, lobbying, and even lawsuits if necessary.
Conservative blogger Michelle Malkin considers such liberal opposition more the result of self-preservation than an ideological support of free speech. Many liberals supported the passing of McCain-Feingold and its application in limiting non-internet speech. "They care only about the free-speech rights of bloggers," Ms. Malkin told WORLD. "They couldn't care less about the free-speech rights of, say, the NRA."
Still, many conservatives are setting aside their dislike of liberal inconsistencies in hopes of allying against potential regulation. "Currently, the limits would hurt conservatives more than it would hurt liberals," said conservative blogger Bill Hennessy, noting that more conservative blogs exist. "Ultimately, though, the pain is already even; stifling political speech hurts everyone." Mr. Hennessy told WORLD that his hope lies not with the FEC leaving the internet alone but with an eventual Supreme Court ruling "that the First Amendment trumps McCain-Feingold."