This morning I had the opportunity to speak in front of the FPPC subcommittee on the Political Reform Act and Internet political activity as they contemplate potentially further regulating disclosure and reporting requirements for the Internet. Also appearing on the “political consultants” panel with me were Steve Maviglio, and Bryan Merica from ID Media and Fox & Hounds Daily. The goo-goo groups followed us, Kim Alexander, California Voter Foundation, Derek Cressman, Common Cause, Tiffany Mok, ACLU and Barbara O’Connor, Sacramento State University.
Ironically, the Internet subcommittee hearing was not broadcast on the web, though you could listen to it on a 1-800 number. And of course there was no wifi in the room.
The FPPC subcommittee members are concerned about voters not knowing who is paying for both advertising and content on the web. At the same time, they were pretty clear that they did not want to stifle political communication and see the Internet as a great for Democracy.
Much of the discussion focused on disclosure of the committees/candidates responsible for advertising and email communication. Just about everyone agreed that disclosure was conceptually a good thing, but I and others made the point that a one size fits all policy will not work. For example, one could have a committee name so long that it would take up the whole character limit on a Google search ad. Or setting a rule that the disclosure language must take up 5% of the space on a image ad like Florida recently did would make it illegible at places like Calitics. Our standard ads here are 150×200 pixels. Nobody could read text that took up 5% of that space.
It does make sense on the other hand to require disclosure of the candidate/committee on the landing page (the page where people are redirected to upon clicking the link). There will be plenty of room to put the name on those pages. Full credit to Bob Brigham for the idea, but one could link the FPPC number right to the Secretary of State page for that entity, which discloses the contributors and expenditures data.
There was also some discussion about the difficulty in regulating disclosure on sites like Facebook/Twitter. They are constantly changing their design and interface. It might be possible now to post the committee name now on the front page of a Fan page, but we may not have that functionality a year from now. The basic point is that the Internet and these sites in particular are evolving at such a fast rate that it may be impossible to set up detailed requirements that are not quickly outdated.
A great deal of time was spent on sockpuppets and paid shills who are not disclosing that they are being hired to blog by a campaign. The subcommittee members seemed inclined to require that bloggers disclose if they are being paid to blog. Even I did not argue too strongly against that. While we are pretty good at self-policing, it is not a perfect system. All of us editors here at Calitics voluntarily disclose who we are being paid by if it is relevant to the posting. Steve Maviglio in particular welcomed this idea. Derek Cressman suggested that one alternative might be simply more detailed reporting to the state about what individuals are being hired to do.
The FPPC staff recommended that independent bloggers be treated just like journalists. The commissioners were a bit hesitant about doing so, and suggested perhaps creating a separate category. But I and others argued that the lines are so blurred these days between who is a blogger and journalist that it did not make sense. Given the decimation of the Sacramento press corps, it is more important than ever that we encourage journalism and blogging, rather than pass further regulation.
I also gave them the example from the other week of a traditional media outlet getting Rep. Jerry McNerney’s position on the health care reform bill incorrect. It was blogger Dave Dayen who was the one who picked up the phone, called the office and got the correct information published. Now was he a journalist who was blogging his work, or was he a blogger acting like a journalist? How does one draw the line?
No specifics were discussed with regards to independent bloggers, but don’t be surprised to see them pick this up again at a future date. Speaking of dates, next week they will be holding a similar hearing in Los Angeles with FEC commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub on the schedule. She will be talking about how the FEC has been tackling these same issues.
The commissioners were looking for advice on what we as practitioners were looking for from them: regulation or advisory letters. Given the speed of innovation, it certainly makes more sense for guidance than regulation with fines as punishment. The commission doesn’t exactly move at warp speed, so don’t expect to see anything out of them for some time. All in all it was a very good open discussion and while I believe we further complexified the situation for them, it illuminated the issues they have to take in to consideration as they contemplate taking action.