FEC untangling policies
on candidates' Web use
Role of Internet in elections expected to grow
By Jim Landers / The Dallas Morning News
WASHINGTON - An enthusiastic supporter creates a Web site advocating the election of a presidential candidate. Is that a campaign contribution?
Are Web sites that parody a candidate's positions harmless fun or dirty politics built on stolen fame?
Gov. George W. Bush's presidential campaign has put these and other questions to the Federal Election Commission to try to clarify the campaign finance rules of the Internet.
For months, the FEC's six commissioners and their staff have struggled for answers. FEC Commissioner David Mason, who wants the agency to take a comprehensive look at Internet campaigning, said an advisory opinion is expected within a few weeks.
"As far as comprehensive rules, I rather doubt we'll be able to do that before the 2000 election," he said in an interview.
Internet politics has been part of the election process since the 1996 presidential campaign, but its possibilities are still being discovered. The panel's decisions on regulating political activity over the Internet today could have a major effect on future campaigns.
Two senators who are fans of the Internet, for example, said recently that they expect to put the bulk of their political advertising money into the Internet when they run again in 2004.
"Vermont has one of the highest Internet user levels in the country," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. "My guess is I'll put the bulk of it into that, with broadband and streaming media technology, five years from now."
Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, agreed.
"Without question it's going to be a very major part of my next campaign," he said.
The Internet is gaining favor with political campaigns because it's almost a cost-free means of mass communication, it can be targeted much more easily than other types of advertising, and because it is interactive.
The Bush campaign wants the commission to clarify the use of e-mail and Web site links in terms of what they're worth as contributions, and whether Internet polls are treated as media and thus exempt from FEC reporting requirements.
The Supreme Court has ruled that anyone spending over $1,000 as a political advocate in federal elections must report to the FEC who they are and how much they're spending.
The Bush campaign has had to curtail some Internet politicking while waiting for answers to its FEC query, said Benjamin Ginsberg, national counsel for Mr. Bush's campaign.
"Some volunteers want to engage in certain things for fund raising, and we've asked them not to pursue that," he said. Links from memorabilia vendors to the Bush campaign are also on hold.
These are hardly major stumbling blocks in Mr. Bush's overall fund raising, which so far has exceeded $56 million.
Other candidates are having some success raising money over the Internet, but it has not replaced old-fashioned solicitations.
Internet politicking has also come up in the congressional debate about campaign finance reform. Opponents of spending limits have tried to win amendments that would free the Internet of campaign restrictions.
Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, saw his amendment defeated in the House. A similar effort died Tuesday in the Senate debate about campaign finance reform, but Mr. Bennett and Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., hope to write a free-standing bill on Internet politicking.
Mr. Bennett supports the hands-off approach to the Internet. He said the argument about campaign finance is backward.
"The real issue is not buying access to politicians, but politicians gaining access to voters," he said. "There's no way to meet and greet every voter in my state. I either have to go through the media and answer the questions that are on that reporter's agenda . . . or buy an ad. The Internet will change all that. It makes getting your views to the voters much easier."
FEC Commissioner Mason said the issues surrounding candidates and the Internet are fairly simple matters of how to account for expenses.
"The complicated question is what happens when somebody else is engaging in political activity over the Internet," he said.
One example involves the news media. The FEC's rules governing media expression, which exempt reporting and editorial endorsements from federal reporting requirements, were written with publications in mind.
Mr. Mason said it's pretty clear the same exemptions would apply to media Web sites, from The Dallas Morning News to the online Drudge Report.
Parodies where someone sets up a Web site to lampoon the candidate are different, he said.
"They may well have a good First Amendment and freedom of speech argument," Mr. Mason said. "But as far as the statute goes, taking a parody site and calling it a publication may be a stretch."
These Internet sites are attracting attention from legislators as well.
The Senate has voted to outlaw "cybersquatting" - the practice of registering a Web site name using copies or close approximations of brand names and corporate logos. A similar measure is under consideration in the House.
The bills do not cover Web sites using a candidate's name, however. Many Web sites registered with such names have been offered for sale to the trademark owners at prices well above the $70 registration fee. Others aren't for sale, according to their owners, but will be used in political campaigns to either attack or support candidates.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has seen his own name appropriated by an entrepreneur offering to sell it to the senator's presidential campaign.
Mr. Hatch is concerned about such Web sites but has not drafted legislation dealing with them, said Jeanne Lopatto, the Senate Judiciary Committee's press secretary.
"Even Mother Teresa's name has been taken and offered for sale to the sisters of her order," Ms. Lopatto said. "The idea that Mother Teresa's name could be put on the auction block and offered to the highest bidder smacks of an abusive practice."
Candidates have tried to buy Web sites with variations on their names, both good and bad, to prevent others from using them. But a large number were bought long ago. Dikran Yacoubian, a Republican activist in Germantown, Tenn., owns several involving both Mr. Bush and former Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley.
Several Web sites (including firstladylaurabush.com and electbush.com) take viewers to the satire site, www.gwbush.com.
In May, Mr. Bush filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission against Rtmark, a loose-knit group of corporate critics who own www.gwbush.com.
Mr. Bush called the site "malicious" and wants the site to post a disclaimer and identify its funding sources. Frank Guerrero, a spokesman for the Web site designer, said the site was a parody that should be protected as free speech.
The FEC is not expected to reach a decision on the complaint any time soon. Meanwhile, it has warned Internet users to beware of violating earlier FEC rulings that characterized political speech over Web sites as reportable contributions if the cost exceeds $250.