Friday, June 10, 2005

Regulatory Question Of The Day

Catching up on recent FEC news, I'm wondering about efforts to regulate internet political activism, advertising, whatever. The BCRA boys are out in full force, naturally. First, they applaud the way the 'net improves political discourse and urge caution lest stifle "the virtually limitless potential of this exciting medium." (No word on whether they caught the internal humor of "virtually.")

But, McCain et al also see no reason to believe "monied interests will not attempt to use the internet to influence politics and policy" as they do with all other media.

Okay. Fair. Sure they'll try. But - and I may be naive here - I don't fear them the same way I do the power of the purse to invade mailboxes, idiot-boxes, and ballot boxes. While it is incredibly difficult to get an accurate read on the net - and especially on the blogosphere - when you're in it yourself, there do seem to be some basic trends that would run against the BCRA boys' fears.

Indy sites and bloggers are more trusted. It's hard to tell for sure how website trends will run as the genre goes (more) mainstream. But thinking back to last summer's conventions, what major news organization didn't have a blog? Right. And who read them? I don't know - but they weren't blogs like we're blogs because they were trying to insert themselves into a field both prematurely and too late.

Granted, the contemplated regulations contemplate much more than the 'sphere. But from what I know of linkage science - and what those nice Google guys do - money may buy you lots of sidebar action, or blue header-bar action, but it can't beat good old fashioned word of, uh, keyboard. With the right content, you can catapult any site into an overnight net-sation and even type your way into the MSM (see also: Drudge, Matt; Lines, Power). Money didn't get those messages out. And memogate was advocacy in the extreme, however it was intended and executed. Monied interests may come into play because money breeds connections. And connections breed links. But the 'net is almost as free for users as radio or television. Libraries and free internet cafes, coupled with free email accounts and services like our own Blogger here, mean that any literate person with 10 minutes and enough fine motor control to work a mouse can establish her presence on the net. It's not a far jump from presence to advocacy, political activism, and even, for the lucky leaders in the genre, influence.

And good luck even coming up with a regulatory scheme for our Wild Wifi West. Who could monitor all our goings-on? How will you uncover carefully covered tracks and enforce regulations? How do you place a value on net activism? For brick-and-voter in-kind contributions you can add up the costs of the stamps and printing, the airtime, the pizza. My computer cost about $2k and I pay around $35/month for net access, $48/year for hosting and that's all. For each time I say "Vote for Jake Zimmerman" will the regulatory body apportion out my costs per unique visitor? What if none of them visited from an IP address traceable to the St. Louis area?

The focus of the latest round of FEC efforts is on paid advertising. But regular net users can easily identify paid advertising and are likely skeptical about a lot of things they see on the web. Web advertising is a targeted, nuanced field - as well as an inexact science - a far cry from media buys of old.

Getting back to bloggers, the proposal would exempt those who use the net to express political opinions on their own. The resulting blogger boom will be obvious - and blogger ethics are entirely self-created, self-enforced, and change more often than I do before a date. There would also be limits on the use of corporate and union computers for this activity. Don't get me started on that aspect. And of course, there will always been a media exemption for news and commentary. Note "commentary." Well that should about cover everything, right?

Groups like the Center for Responsive Politics, Democracy 21, and the Campaign Legal Center apparently support the FEC's proposal to grant the media exemption to legitimate media organizations. Which would be cute since a large part of blog power derives from the fact that we aren't MSM. Legitimacy would be decided on a "case-by-case basis." Let's see, I'm guessing the cases are if you have a recognizable 2 or 3 letter acronym (ABC, NBC, CBS, NYT, LAT, WP, WSJ) you're case will go favorably. I feel legitimate yet I think my FEC readership might not be all that high.

And then there's what I can only assume is the Kos Provision which would require disclosure by those receiving payments from a campaign and posting online material beneficial to the campaign.

First one to figure out how to a) mesh that with the First Amendment, b) enforce it, or c) write effective language on it wins a prize.

Basic requirements that paid web advertising be disclosed might be fine. But such a rule vastly oversimplifies the nature of politics in an online world.

The internet has the potentially to level the playing field. Dean, a governor from a state with roughly the population of San Jose (as reader DR pointed out) was able, for a brief and blissful period, to harness the net's tidal energy and ride it to household-name status. That simply could not have happened via television, radio, print, and mail tactics.

Whether or not I prompt action from my readers, I reach more people, basically for free, with this nifty blog than I'd ever have the money to reach without it. So the monied interests can try their best to overtake this genre too. We'll either survive their attempts, or reinvent ourselves using technology that some 15 year old is developing in his basement right now.

Thanks but no thanks, BCRA boys. We can take care of ourselves.

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