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Friday, June 03, 2005

OMB Watch Tells FEC Campaign Finance Reform Assumptions Don't Apply to Internet

OMB Watch is a Washington, D.C. based liberal advocacy group that normally keeps an eye on how the administration in the White House manages the government through the immense management perogatives of the Office of Management and Budget (thus "OMB Watch"). The group has also done some excellent work on encouraging improved public access to government data and documents.

Since OMB Watch doesn't participate in political campaigns, it would not normally be expected to have much to say about an FEC proposal to regulate political speech on the Internet. But earlier today the group submitted to the FEC an outstanding comment that goes against the grain of campaign finance reform movement.

"Last year's election saw a marked increase in civic participation fostered by the Internet," the group said in its comment to the agency. "Nonpartisan nonprofits showed renewed interest and energy for educating and mobilizing voters. This development should be applauded and nurtured. It should not be an excuse for greater government intervention. The obvious benefits that the public derived from a largely unregulated Internet should not be lost to the speculative harms that might be offered to justify new regulation."

Put another way, OMB Watch recognizes FEC regulation of political speech on the Internet is an enemy of increased civic participation, regardless of the ideological orientation of the groups encouraging that participation.

The group goes on to note that "it has become clear that many of the underlying premises of campaign finance reform do not hold on the Internet. OMB Watch's own use of the Internet demonstrates well the inadequacy of these assumptions as a justification for regulation.

"A core justification for the regulation is widely accepted link between money and influence in politics. Measured only by its budget, OMB Watch is seemingly a small, inconsequential organization. The Internet immeasurably increases its ability to compete in the marketplace of ideas.

"The fact that the Internet is largely unregulated reduces compliance costs and allows ordinary citizens to organize and participate in the political debate on essentially the same footing as well-funded special interest groups."

After noting the many ways in which the Internet made greater civic participation feasible for more people than ever before, OMB Watch said the FEC "should avoid imposing even seemingly innocuous regulation on the Internet communication."

The group also rejects the FEC's proposal to apply an exemption for media only to organizations that derive financial support from advertising or subscriptions. Neither The Christian Science Monitor nor The Washington Times are supported primarily by either funding stream, but under the FEC proposal they would not qualify for a press exemption.

And since the number of business models behind blogs just about matches the multiplicity of kind of blogs, it would be impossible to try to shape a press exemption for blogs based on revenue sources, according to OMB Watch.

"Would the Election Law blog maintained by Professor Hasen [a campaign finance reform advocate], which reports daily on election law developments, not be entitled to the press exemption because Professor Hasen's business model, if it exists at all, is different from that of The New York Times?"

You can read the entire OMB Watch comment here. I have been a small donor to this group in the past. I will be increasing my donation this year.