- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Federal Election Commission deadlocked in a crucial Internet campaign speech vote announced late last week, leaving online political blogging and videos free of many of the reporting requirements attached to broadcast ads — for now.

All three Republican-backed members voted against restrictions, but they were opposed by the three Democrat-backed panel members, including Vice Chairwoman Ann M. Ravel, who said she will lead a push next year to come up with rules for government political speech on the Internet.

It would mark a major reversal for the commission, which for nearly a decade has protected the abilities of individuals and interest groups to engage in a robust political conversation on the Internet without having to comply with the disclaimers and reporting requirements that official political committees must submit.

Ms. Ravel said she fears that in trying to keep the Internet open for bloggers, they instead have created a loophole for major political players to escape some scrutiny.

“Some of my colleagues seem to believe that the same political message that would require disclosure if run on television should be categorically exempt from the same requirements when placed in the Internet alone,” she said in a statement. “As a matter of policy, this simply does not make sense.”

She said the FEC should no longer “turn a blind eye to the Internet’s growing force in the political arena,” and she vowed to force a conversation next year on what changes to make.

SEE ALSO: EDITORIAL: Defending political free speech

The three Republican-backed commissioners, though, said in a joint statement that Ms. Ravel’s plans would stifle what has become the “virtual free marketplace of political ideas and democratic debate.”

FEC Chairman Lee E. Goodman said what Ms. Ravel is proposing would require a massive bureaucracy digging into the corners of the Web to police who posts what about politics.

“I cannot imagine a regulatory regime that would put government censors on the Internet daily, culling YouTube video posts for violations of law — nothing short of a Chinese censorship board,” Mr. Goodman said.

The case disclosed Friday involved a group Checks and Balances for Economic Growth, which produced two advertisements it ran online in 2012 accusing President Obama of lying about a Mitt Romney campaign event and Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio of lying about a “war on coal.”

Initial news reports said the group was paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to broadcast the ads on television, but the group said it posted the videos only to YouTube.

FEC attorneys said the ads don’t expressly push for the election or defeat of a candidate and that the commission’s own rules say the costs of posting videos to the Internet don’t trigger disclosure requirements. Meanwhile, an FEC precedent from 2008 says the costs of producing an Internet-only video also don’t trigger disclosure.

SEE ALSO: FEC Democrat pushes for controls on Internet political speech

Mr. Goodman said those rules have protected any number of popular political videos, including the “Obama Girl” video during the 2008 presidential campaign and the spoof videos produced by JibJab.

“We’re talking about everyone who’s not a political committee who wants to post, for free, videos on YouTube, blog content, chat room content, create their own website expressing their political opinions,” he said.

Political committees and individuals or groups who pay to have ads run online are still subject to disclosure requirements, so a campaign that runs a targeted ad on Hulu.com, which offers movies and episodes of some popular television series, still would have to file with the FEC.

A group that produces and posts a video on its own website, or posts it on YouTube or another free video-sharing site, is free of regulation.

Despite the 3-3 vote, only Ms. Ravel released a statement signaling discomfort with existing rules.

The other two Democrat-backed commissioners did not release statements and did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Ms. Ravel said the Internet has advanced beyond what the FEC envisioned when it made its initial rules and precedents that left it free of most government political controls.

She said regular television broadcast content is now available over the Internet, even streaming to phones or tablets, and much of the Internet’s political advertising is “dominated by the same political organizations that dominate traditional media.”

“So why hasn’t the commission reevaluated its approach to keep up with the changing times?” she said, questioning the “limited feedback” the FEC received at the time it wrote its Internet rules a decade ago.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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