Net Election

The Rules of Engagement

Slate and the Industry Standard join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.

If the Internet is going to become the new campaign battleground, then a lot of people—from federal officials to campaign consultants to election lawyers—will jockey to define the rules of engagement.

Should individual political activity online, such as posting a message urging people to vote for a particular candidate, be considered free speech or a campaign contribution?

Should links between political Web sites be considered informational, or should campaigns have to put a monetary value on a link and include it in federal election filings?

Should a new top-level domain—.pol, for example, if it’s not already taken—be created for political Web sites to stem the growth of counterfeit or unauthorized sites?

These were among the issues considered at a three-day conference—”Campaigns in Cyberspace: The Promise and Practice of Digital Politics”—held recently by the Aspen Institute. The Washington-based think tank assembled a panel of election lawyers, federal regulators, Internet political consultants, academics, journalists (including this writer), and others to devise recommendations to help Congress and the Federal Election Commission revise laws for Internet campaigning.

“The Internet is sort of the new town hall. Citizens can speak their minds and talk to each other and talk to candidates freely,” says Christine Varney, a conference participant and former White House adviser who now heads the American Bar Association’s standing committee on elections. “At the same time, regulations exist to safeguard against abuses and fraud. The question is how to do that effectively on the Net. My position on all of these issues is to make sure we don’t intervene until we see more maturity in the marketplace.”

The think tank’s panel agreed, recommending that political activity on the Internet be promoted, “absent specific intent to use the Internet to circumvent the law.” The group also proposed that candidates and party committees be allowed to link their Web sites to others without considering the links contributions or expenditures. In addition, some groups prohibited from making direct contributions in federal elections, namely corporations and unions, should be allowed to link to candidate Web sites as long as the links are bipartisan.

Two additional provisions would look at proposals to stem the growth of unauthorized Web sites that purport to belong to a candidate and would require periodic review of regulations to judge their impact on the use of the Internet to spread political activity.

The Aspen Institute’s conference presages an inquiry by the FEC, which could come as soon as Oct. 28, to examine a whole slew of issues. Among the questions on the docket: how the Internet fits with current regulations regarding political action committees, corporations, unions, and individuals who want to express advocacy of a candidate or an issue online. At press time, the FEC was finalizing a 27-page draft proposal outlining the specific issues that the commission intends to examine.

“We needed to have a generic inquiry as opposed to addressing one aspect at a time,” says David Mason, a Republican commissioner who attended the conference. “We’re not proposing 27 pages of regulations of the Internet. We’re posing questions.”

FEC Chairman Scott Thomas, a Democrat who was also at the conference, noted that the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 outlined three principles that need to be preserved on the Internet: 1) disclosure of how money is raised and spent to influence elections; 2) limits on the amount that any one person can contribute to a campaign; and 3) restrictions on independent spending by corporations and unions.