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FPPC considers regulating Internet political practices

March 22, 2010

Hi Folks,

Last week I testified before the Fair Political Practices Commission's Subcommittee on the Political Reform Act & Internet Political Activity.

The FPPC is examining whether any new regulations should be adopted to govern online political activities. Commissioners heard from a number of people, including Jennie Bowser of the National Conference of State Legislature, who reported that this is an area of policy few states have explored. A panel of political consultants shared their concerns, such as the difficulty in regulating activities taking place on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, when users have no control over the platforms and the platforms are subject to change at any time.

I was on a "public interest" panel, and shared several observations and suggestions. Click here to read my full testimony. An excerpt is below.

It's important that whatever happens with the Internet and politics in the future, creativity is not stifled. You don't want to create a situation where every time anyone opens his mouth he has to form a political committee and attach an ID number.

What we want to avoid on the Internet is anonymous paid political speech. Anyone can open a Twitter account, and mouth off all day long about someone who is running for office. And they should be free to do that, unless the person doing it is being paid by someone - then the twittering moves from "free speech" to "paid speech".

California's approach to balancing political speech and disclosure is a good one - we use thresholds. If you spend more than $1,000 you must form a committee. If you put a piece of campaign literature through the U.S. Mail you must truthfully identify yourself. If you give one hundred dollars or more your name, address, occupation and employer will be publicly disclosed.

However, it will not be disclosed online. In California a donor's street name and number is redacted from the online display at the Secretary of State's web site. In fact, it appears that California is the only state in the nation that redacts street names and numbers for donors. This is an important element of California's disclosure system and one that CVF pushed for because we did not want online disclosure to have a chilling effect on the public's desire to participate in elections as campaign donors.

It would be helpful if the public could be better informed about this redaction process. I also encourage the FPPC to consider implementing a program to more aggressively monitor and fine campaigns that identify donors below the itemized threshold. Too often I find donations for $99 displayed on the Cal-Access disclosure site - and I'm fairly certain that people who are giving $99 are doing so because they want to give the maximum amount possible without having their names disclosed.

I also think it would be helpful if the FPPC could be more forthcoming on its web site about what anonymous free speech rights the public is entitled to in campaigns. These rights need to be clearly spelled out, so that people know how closely they can walk up to the line of having to identify themselves without crossing it.

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This page was first published on December 19, 2009 | Last updated on March 23, 2010
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