Last week, as a parting gift to its chairwoman, Ann Ravel (who is slated to be confirmed to the Federal Election Commission), the California Fair Political Practices Commission enacted a sweeping proposal to regulate online political communication. The move makes California the first state to attempt to require the disclosure of online communication by someone paid by a campaign to engage in social media.
The reason for this pioneering regulation, insist FPPC officials, is that voters deserve to know if someone expressing their free speech rights is getting a paycheck to do so. On the face of it, that makes some sense.
But here’s the reality: self-policing by the online community, as well as current reporting requirements, has made paid non-reported blogging almost nonexistent in our state. Most blogs typically require that authors disclose their affiliation with any campaign.
But pressed, the FPPC repeatedly fails to provide more than a handful of examples of when those engaged in social media didn’t already report their activity — or tried to conceal it.
Nonetheless, the FPPC has enacted a regulation in search of a problem, one that will be unworkable and unenforceable and will result in an avalanche of unnecessary paperwork. The net will result will be less online activity, and reduced voter engagement.
This new FPPC regulation contradicts the pleas of the online community to “do no harm” that date back to 2003, when the bipartisan Commission on Internet Communication began to explore the impact of this fast-growing technology in campaigns . In 2010, the FPPC updated the commission’s work with a subcommittee, where again, experts begged the commission to let the evolving political Internet world grow without technology-stifling regulations.
And grow it has. In last year’s political cycle, voters turned to the Internet like never before. Californians were tweeting and posting political news to their Facebook, Tumblr, Reddit and other social media accounts in record numbers, with millions of postings during the recent GOP and Democratic conventions alone.
Advances we couldn’t even envision a couple years ago appeared last cycle: More than 200,000 voters signed up for an app that allowed them to be the first to know who Mitt Romney would name as vice president; Obama supporters were able to contribute up to $50 to the president’s re-election campaign via their mobile phone by texting “Give.”
These innovations are the result of armies of social media campaigners — now a mainstay of statewide races and ballot initiatives — who are engaging voters in new and interesting ways. But that creativity will now be stifled by a regulation that requires each post outside of a campaign’s own platform to be ID’d and reported to state government. That’s tough enough for a well-funded campaign, never mind ashoestring campaigns, that will add an onerous new layer of regulation that will result in less online communication.
The FPPC doesn’t have the resources – nor the need – to become the Internet police. It should stick to its knitting and work on enforcing the voluminous campaign reporting rules already on the books, instead of attempting to slow the revolution of online communication that is revolutionizing California politics.