Specter of regulation sows anxiety in cyberspace


November 13, 2005|By TROY MCCULLOUGH

When the House of Representatives failed to pass the Online Freedom of Speech Act this month, one of the Internet's newest bloggers was quick to register his dismay.

"Today's action marks a sad day for one of our nation's most sacred rights: freedom of speech. The federal government seeks to control and regulate the Internet, but the last thing this Congress should be doing is trying to stifle public debate online," wrote Dennis Hastert on his 3-week-old blog, Speaker's Journal (speaker.house.gov/journal/index.shtml).

Hastert, speaker of the House and an Illinois Republican, was a supporter of the bill, HR 1606, which sought to immunize online political speech from potentially crippling campaign finance regulations.

Whether the bill's failure will end up curtailing Internet freedoms remains to be seen. But bloggers - from Hastert on down - are voicing concerns.

Although the vote on the bill was 225 to 186, it fell short of the two-thirds majority needed for passage under special House rules, with most Republicans voting for it and most Democrats against.

"I see that the most liberal of parties opposes what is effectively Free Speech and the party which brought us the Patriot Act is advocating it," noted a posting on the tech-centric group blog Slashdot. org. "When black appears white or pigs appear to have sprouted wings, there's usually politics behind it."

And indeed, there may be more than free speech at stake.

While Republicans said the bill would protect bloggers from an overbearing government, Democrats saw the bill as an underhanded effort to create a major loophole in the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance laws. McCain-Feingold essentially ignored the Internet, and so, under orders from a federal judge, the Federal Election Commission has been hammering out a set of online regulations, without any guidance from Congress.

HR 1606 was an attempt at such guidance, but all of this is uncharted territory.

Some claim the bill would have allowed wealthy candidates to secretly buy armies of bloggers to support their cause, while others see a danger of burying online pundits under a mountain of murky regulations, forcing them out of business.

"Politicians have again shown themselves ready to trash the Constitution in order to limit the speech of those potentially critical to themselves," wrote Warren Meyer on his Libertarian-leaning CoyoteBlog.com.

A commenter on the liberal DailyKos.com worried that group political sites were in danger. "In the end, this site and many like [it] may have to be silenced because of it. I believe that's unconstitutional."

Some weren't buying that argument.

"I can go out using my own resources, set up a blog, and pontificate to my heart's content. There are no restrictions on that and there never will be," posted Jon Hanson on a News.com article on the vote. "I cannot, however, pose as an independent blogger and be paid by a political campaign or one of the political parties for my services unless I disclose this fact plainly. That is what this issue is about."

Another Slashdot writer worried about this scenario: "Some PAC raises one million dollars from unlimited, unreported donations. They use the money to pay 1000 bloggers to promote their issue. They don't need to report that these bloggers work for them, or how much they get paid. Rinse. Repeat. Is this free speech?"

The FEC is expected to announce its regulations in February. Before then, another version of the bill is expected on the House floor.

Hastert and thousands of other bloggers are anxiously waiting.


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