Maryland elections officials reached into the sphere of social networking Thursday, voting to adopt rules regulating candidates' Facebook or Twitter pages.
"I think it brings clarity to the process," said Jared DeMarinis, director of the Maryland State Board of Elections. "The public can get an idea of what is an official communication without worrying about the source of the posting. They can make informed decisions at the ballot box."
The board voted 4-0 to adopt the new rules, which would require campaigns to add a disclosure sentence to their social-networking websites that is identical to one required on printed materials. The sentence must identify the campaign committee paying for the material and name its treasurer.
Violators would be subject to a $1,000 fine or up to a year in prison. The rules would not apply to unofficial sites established by private citizens unaffiliated with a candidate or campaign, or to government sites.
The measure now awaits approval by a panel of legislators. DeMarinis says the board is fast-tracking the rules in hope of getting them in place for the current election cycle; the Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review Committee is expected to consider them by the end of next month.
If it approves the rules, Maryland would be among the first states in the country to regulate candidates' use of social-networking websites. Florida has approved similar rules, and Wisconsin and California are considering measures of their own.
The Maryland board sought help from Bradley Shear, a Bethesda attorney who specializes in social networking.
"We knew that what we were working on would become a model for the country," he said. "To me, social media is going to be with us for a long time. You have to embrace it and bring it into the fold."
Thursday's meeting also drew representatives from Google, AOL, Facebook and Yahoo — many of whom were initially nervous about the effect of the proposed rules on micro ads that have scant room for a full disclosure.
"Part of the challenge is what will the next technology be?" said John Burchett, a lawyer for Google. "What we are trying to do is create enough flexibility so the next generation of communications are not thwarted because the regulations are behind the times."
Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes called the final regulations a "victory," and said the state is now "leading the way for the rest of the country."
The board accepted some last-minute changes proposed by the industry that exempt some online advertisements from carrying a disclosure, Burchett said.
Online advertisements of less than 200 characters will not need to carry the disclosure, as long as they point users to a website that carries the full sentence. That's an issue for the Google advertisements that appear when a user searches on a word; they are limited to 95 characters.
The board will also exempt some small display ads frequently used on Facebook if they serve as links to an official campaign website regulated by the elections board.
Burchett compared the small ads to envelopes on a traditional campaign mailer.
"The envelope does not have to have the disclaimer," he said. "We all agree once you hit the link and have room for more substance you have to have more disclosure there."