Free speech means a free internet — even if Democrats don't like it

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) recently held two days of hearings on proposed internet regulations. While the hysterical media has ginned up a new “red scare,” the FEC’s proposals will do nothing to stop bad actors, but will undermine our First Amendment rights to online political speech.

The FEC used the hearings, at which I testified, to consider different approaches — some more restrictive than others — to “improve” disclaimers for online political advertising. Yet FEC regulations already require political action committees (PACs) and other online spenders to use disclaimers where they can, or to click through to fully disclaimed pages if they can’t. PACs are also required to disclose all of their expenditures monthly or quarterly, and file special reports whenever spending more than modestly to support or oppose candidates.

Existing regulations are clear and comprehensive. The law isn’t the so-called problem being addressed here, though; it’s all that persnickety speech outside the political establishment.

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The FEC’s Democrats, most notably Vice Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub, condemn advertising “paid for by Russia or other foreign countries,” urging Congress to “regulate political spending on the internet.” But that’s silly: The law already forbade those bad actors in the first place.

 

Bad actors won’t comply with the law — because they’re bad actors. For the political elites, who can afford to hire campaign finance lawyers and well-paid vendors, the FEC’s proposals will at most be a nuisance as they continue delivering their messages online.

Regulating the internet will only overburden everyone else who would seek to comply with the law, or simply stay silent. The left’s quick-trigger response is as aggressively anti-First Amendment as they are to the Second Amendment, and every bit as pointless. Echoing anti-gun activists, anti-speech liberals attempt to punish lawful activity they dislike with rules that won’t stop unlawful activity.

If political advertisers violate the regulations on the books, they should be pursued and punished. But the left’s vision of a less free internet is little more than ill-considered, knee-jerk reaction to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonState Dept: Russia’s allegations about American citizens ‘absolutely absurd’ Trump on possible sit-down with Mueller: 'I've always wanted to do an interview' Election Countdown: Senate, House Dems build cash advantage | 2020 Dems slam Trump over Putin presser | Trump has M in war chest | Republican blasts parents for donating to rival | Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders to campaign in Kansas MORE’s failed presidential bid.

The resonance of President TrumpDonald John TrumpIran claims it rejected Trump meeting requests 8 times ESPY host jokes Putin was as happy after Trump summit as Ovechkin winning Stanley Cup Russian ambassador: Trump made ‘verbal agreements’ with Putin MORE’s candidacy and eventual victory led Congress and federal agencies to take a heightened interest in Facebook advertising and other forms of truly open, online speech through which the Trump message flourished. Following the 2016 election, Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerBipartisan bill would bring needed funds to deteriorating National Park Service infrastructure Senate Dems press for info on any deals from Trump-Putin meeting Overnight Defense: Trump tries to quell Russia furor | GOP looks to reassure NATO | Mattis open to meeting Russian counterpart MORE (D-Va.) warned against political ads “that would drive interest toward stories or groups” to “sow chaos and drive division in our country.” In other words, ideas he doesn’t like.

Left-leaning journalists, meanwhile, continue to suggest “fake news” on social media elected President Trump. As NPR reporter Danielle Kurtzleben put it, “Many purveyors of fake news aimed to help Trump win, and lo and behold, Trump won.” In other words, ideas they don’t approve of.

Of course, such assertions don’t hold up to empirical scrutiny. Zuckerberg first came under congressional pressure over $10,000 worth of Russian-bought Facebook ads. Not all of them were even explicitly political: Of the roughly 3,500 Facebook ads traced back to Russia, only about 100 mentioned support for President Trump or opposition to Clinton.

Are we really supposed to believe that $10,000 and 100 ads felled the billion-dollar Clinton machine — the epitome of political establishment? Or, could it be Americans simply rejected an out-of-touch liberal they didn’t like and couldn’t trust?

To enact broader internet regulations because of the Democratic Party’s sour grapes is the definition of foolishness. Anti-speech Democrats and their establishment enablers assume Americans are mindless simpletons, bought off by the wealthiest candidates and most expensive ad buys.

Have we so quickly forgotten the debacle of Jeb Bush? Or Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump’s walk-back fails to stem outrage on Putin meeting The Memo: Trump allies hope he can turn the page from Russian fiasco Senate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash MORE (R-Fla.)? Or even Clinton herself? Along with Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyGOP lambasts Trump over performance in Helsinki Romney: Trump's remarks at Putin summit 'disgraceful and detrimental to democratic principles' Utah's largest paper compares child separation to war crimes in scathing editorial MORE, these were the candidates with the largest super PACs in U.S. history — and they all lost.

President Trump cruised to primary victory after victory running almost no ads. He won the White House after being substantially outspent in the general election.

The bottom line is this: It’s up to Americans to decide which ideas to support or oppose. Political advertising only brings them more ideas to consider — and broadens the parameters of our political debates.

This is especially true online, where debates are at their most robust. Stifling them with red tape is un-American.

Keep free speech on the internet free from Big Government.

Dan Backer is founding attorney of political.law, a campaign finance and political law firm in Alexandria, Va. Backer is general counsel for the Great America PAC and other political committees; he has served as counsel to more than 100 campaigns, candidates, PACs, and political organizations. Backer is also the president and founder of the Coolidge Reagan Foundation.