Agency eyes regs on online political ads

Democrats on the Federal Election Commission (FEC) want to extend the agency’s reach to online political ads, a change in policy that critics fear could lead to tough new limits on online speech.

On Friday, the commission deadlocked 3-3 on whether or not to investigate Checks and Balances for Economic Growth, a group that ran a pair of online advertisements attacking President Obama and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) in 2012.

While the organization may have spent close to a million dollars on the ads, it did not file any disclosure reports with the FEC, as it would have if the ads had been run on television or the radio.

The carve-out for online-only communications in the FEC’s rules, known as the “Internet exemption,” has existed for more than eight years to make sure political blog posts, websites, social media updates and YouTube videos are not regulated.

But Vice Chairwoman Ann Ravel, a Democrat, said that the rules have not kept pace with the changing times.

“[W]hile the world changes, the commission has not adapted with it and has failed to acknowledge the importance of providing transparency to the public no matter what the medium of political communication,” said she said in a statement

“Some of my colleagues seem to believe that the same political message that would require disclosure if run on television should be categorically exempt from the same requirements when placed on the Internet alone,” she added. “As a matter of policy, this simply does not make sense.”

The commission’s three Republicans hit back, warning that the vote to investigate Checks and Balances for Economic Growth “ignored well-established commission rules that free online political speech from FEC regulation.”

“Regrettably, the 3-to-3 vote in this matter suggests a desire to retreat from these important protections for online political speech — a shift in course that could threaten the continued development of the Internet's virtual free marketplace of political ideas and democratic debate,” FEC Chairman Lee Goodman and Commissioners Caroline Hunter and Matthew Peterson said in a joint statement.

While Friday’s vote might have stalled action for now, Ravel said she is planning to return to the issue next year.

That could spell a major fight over the state of political ads, just as the 2016 presidential campaign season kicks into high gear.