Silicon Insider: Internet Politics

Stand tough FEC! We've got your back!

In all of the chaos surrounding the presidential election, you may have missed a little news item last September.

It seems that a U.S. District Judge, Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, ruled that the exemption given to the Internet from the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act -- a.k.a. McCain-Feingold -- was illegal. Her ruling, in legalese, was that the Federal Election Commission's "exclusion of Internet communications from the coordinated communications regulation severely undermines" that law's purpose.

In plain language, it means that the judge wants all political advertising on the Internet to be regulated, in the same way that it is on television, radio and in print.

If ever there was a time for liberals to make common cause with conservatives about the dangers of judicial interference, this ought to be it. What is at stake is the freedom of the Web. That freedom, though it can sometimes be disgusting or scary, is also one of the glories of our time. Messing with that freedom should not be done lightly -- and certainly not just for congruence with an already suspect set of regulations. The spirit of the law in this case should be subservient to the spirit of the age.

Interestingly, in one of those rare examples of a government agency actually understanding the technology revolution, the Federal Election Commission has done yeoman's work over the last three years fighting to keep political advertising on the Internet exempt from McCain-Feingold. This was in keeping with the larger goal -- as expressed by both the Bush and Clinton administrations -- of keeping the Web wide open to let it achieve its full potential.

We are a long ways towards that goal -- and in politics, the Web has enabled an efflorescence of political discourse unseen in this country since the Federal Era of the early 19th century. Some of this discourse is brilliant, some of it scurrilous, but all of it is passionate. The Internet unquestionably drove the 2004 presidential elections, from the Swift Boat Veterans to the Soros-funded sites to Moveon to the Powerline/FreeRepublic challenge to Dan Rather. It was also, I suspect, largely responsible for the astonishingly high turnout of voters to the polls -- not to mention the polarization of the electorate into two energized camps.

Exploring the Web's Potential

Isn't this exactly what we were looking for? Ever since I was teenager in the Nixon years, I have read complaints about the apathy of American voters, the failure of the media to fully investigate the claims made by the candidates, and the lack of difference between the two parties. Well, those problems seem to have been solved by, of all things, technology. The trick was to invent a new medium that could bring millions of words and thousands of images into every home at the touch of a button, that could give individual citizens the opportunity to easily talk back or write their own political commentaries … and then get out of the way and let the games begin.

It worked magnificently. Were there problems? Sure; how could you have that much human activity and not have abuses? During the campaign we saw on the Web false information, fraud, misquotes, libel and slander, paid political operatives representing themselves as objective journalists, and a millions of lines of really dumb, uninformed commentary.

And wasn't it wonderful?

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