- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 28, 2006

“Tread lightly” was our advice to the Federal Election Commission last year regarding government interference with the Internet. And so it has. In an unanimous decision Monday, the FEC voted to save most Internet speech from campaign-finance regulations. This is welcome news, if also expected.

The truth is that the FEC never wanted to touch the Internet to begin with, but was forced by a Clinton-appointed judge, who said the Internet was not exempt from the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform act. Her decision elicited harsh and deserved outrage from both the left and right wings of the blogosphere — two realms of society that rarely agree. The FEC responded with a 96-page proposal that “recognizes the Internet as a unique and evolving mode of mass communication and political speech that is distinct from other media in a manner that warrants a restrained regulatory approach.” In layman’s terms what this means is that bloggers and other online political sites are given the “media exemption” that allows newspapers like this one to criticize politicians with no strings attached.

Had the commissioners decided instead to tread heavily, there’s a whole range of nightmarish scenarios. One likely result would have been an end to the days when anyone with a modem and a point of view could take his musings online essentially free of charge. The only entities that would be able to afford navigating the regulatory swamp would have been corporations and multimillionaires — ironically, the same entities the regulation crowd loves to hate.

Unfortunately, the regulationists refuse to go away. Sens. John McCain and Russ Feingold are pushing to include the Internet under the umbrella of their anti-free-speech legislation, and they have allies in the House. Which is why, as former FEC Chairman Brad Smith argues, Congress would do well to pass Rep. Jeb Hensarling’s Online Freedom of Speech Act to codify the FEC’s rules into law. “What worries us is the ‘slippery slope’ argument,” Mike Walz, Hensarling press secretary, told us. As good as the FEC decision is, the federal government is now online, so to speak. It’s generally a time for concern whenever the government gets a foot in door, since there’s no telling how a future FEC would interpret the rules.

The FEC should be congratulated for its wisdom. Free-speech advocates online and off should hope Congress has just as much.

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