Campaign Finance Laws Giving Government Excuse to Regulate Online Content

Ron Nehring
Republican Candidate for Lt. Governor and Former Chairman of the California Republican Party

Thankfully, Internet content remains largely free of government intrusion and regulation. Americans are increasingly going online for news, to plan their travel, and perform other everyday tasks like banking and keeping up with relatives. They’re also going online for the information they need to determine how they will vote. As candidates and parties consequently step up their online presence, outdated campaign finance laws are giving the bureaucrats a new opening to impose restrictions and regulations on Internet content.

Consider Scott Wagner, the candidate for St. Petersburg mayor whom the Florida Elections Commission ordered to take down an online ad because it didn’t include a “Paid for by” disclaimer. Wagner argued the “paid for by” disclaimer should not have been required because it was only “paid for” by someone once it was clicked on, not before.

The possibilities for absurd regulation of online campaign content are endless. Consider this: As the FPPC takes a look at regulations involving California state and local candidates, should Twitter or Facebook recommending a candidate’s page or account be followed constitute an in-kind contribution? It will be interesting to see what the FPPC says, for if it determines such recommendations are in-kind contributions, will the Federal Election Commission do the same? If so, such Twitter and Facebook recommendations would constitute an illegal corporate in-kind contribution to the candidate.

Taken a step further, will the operators of sites such as Twitter and Facebook be required to track which accountholders are candidates, or potential candidates? And if these rules become too silly or complicated, what of sites that choose to be based outside of the United States? What if they are already? How much does it take to transfer your website to a server in Mexico?

So here we see the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent as regulatory busybodies in 50 states, six territories and the federal government all potentially consider how to impose new rules on Internet content all in the name of “fairness.”

Many of today’s state and federal campaign laws have their origin in the 1970’s, and today’s bureaucrats are attempting to apply those rules to a rapidly changing 21st century communications environment where websites and email are giving way to Twitter and Facebook as the latest communications powerhouses, often with little or no marginal costs to candidates. Government bureaucrats will never be able to keep up with the changes in how American voters and candidates are communicating.

Perhaps this is a time to consider an alternative to promulgating thousands of additional pages of regulations governing political speech, and instead consider taking steps deregulating and decriminalizing political advocacy and discourse. Today’s governor’s race in Virginia is being waged in a state with no contribution limits to state candidates, and none of the reams of regulations that typically govern the application of such limits to fundraising, spending, and the like. Seems like democracy is functioning pretty well without such restrictions on speech. The bureaucrats should take notice.

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