FEC must keep the Internet a place for free minds, free speech

FEC must keep the Internet a place for free minds, free speech
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For months, Russia’s role in the 2016 election has rankled Democrats searching for a scapegoat. Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett Schiff5 things to watch as Trump, Dems clash over investigations Mueller mystery: Will he ever testify to Congress? Overnight Defense: Congressional leaders receive classified briefing on Iran | Trump on war: 'I hope not' | Key Republican calls threats credible | Warren plan targets corporate influence at Pentagon MORE (D-Calif.), who has effectively exploited the Russia ruse to elevate his public profile, consistently laments the proliferation of Russian-bought Facebook ads as an opinion-swaying mechanism.

Yet, more than a year since Election Day, there is still no evidence of collusion between President Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin directly. Nor is there evidence foreign-bought digital ads had any significant impact on the 2016 election, when the Trump campaign amassed 63 million votes en route to victory. It’s hard to believe $100,000 in ads with various messages — not all of them pro-Trump — undid the $1.2 billion Clinton machine.

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Alas, the Russia hysteria has spread from liberal partisans to equally partisan government regulators now that the Federal Election Commission (FEC) once again reopened its request for comments on how it should expand Internet regulations. Ellen Weintraub, a Democratic FEC Commissioner, has expressed disdain at advertising “paid for by Russia or other foreign countries.” She has also urged Congress to “regulate political spending on the Internet.” Of course, Weintraub doesn’t exactly define what that means beyond existing regulations.

(It’s worth noting Friday’s deadline to submit those comments was extended. Why? Because the agency seeking to regulate the Internet had its website fail.)

Don’t be fooled: Expanding Internet speech regulations would be a colossal mistake. Whenever government bureaucrats advocate for broader regulations under the guise of “campaign finance reform,” “transparency,” or any other liberal buzz word, it comes into direct conflict with the First Amendment.

In this case, the FEC’s maneuvering is innately personal. It is a politically motivated agenda that would impose new disclosure and reporting requirements on any Internet user who pays for anything subjectively “political.

Broadening Internet regulations is a bureaucrat’s solution in search of a problem. As outlined in the Federal Register, the FEC already requires a disclaimer for any “public communication” that is “placed for a fee on another person’s website.” This includes paid express advocacy — any paid communications “advocating the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate." Whenever an individual, corporation, labor union, or political committee “pays a fee to place a banner, video, or pop-up advertisement” on another’s website, they are engaging in “public communication” that requires a disclaimer.

The FEC’s energy would be better spent enforcing the laws already on the books, not proposing new red tape that will do nothing but keep law-abiding Americans away from political speech. (That, and getting the agency’s website to work.)

As individuals, we either support an ad’s message or not, and we can choose to ignore it altogether. The power of an ad is not in its mere existence, but how we choose to react to it. For all the millions of “impressions” on the Russian ads in question, they had very little engagement.

The Internet has evolved into a ubiquitous channel of political communication and radically democratized public discourse. Nearly 90 percent of American adults use the Internet. Last year, roughly two-thirds of adults learned about the ongoing presidential election through the Internet, many of them from the website, app, or emails of a candidate or issue-based organization.

This consideration alone has compelled the FEC to allow the “vast majority of Internet communications” to “remain free from campaign finance regulation.” And our public debates have been better off for it.

For good reason: Everyone can watch television or listen to the radio, but only those with money can use these mediums to communicate. The shift from receiving information to conveying information was a quantum leap, and the Internet enabled that. Today, we’re all essentially media entities, since we can all disseminate our ideas to the general public. This is a powerfully democratizing force. The FEC’s rulemaking would turn the clock back to the 20th century.

The Internet must be left largely unregulated to preserve it as a convenient, inexpensive, and easily accessible tool for the robust exercise of free speech. The Internet’s unregulated nature is, at least in part, its charm. Even the FEC has recognized as much, describing the Internet as “a bastion of free political speech, where any individual has access to almost limitless political expression with minimal cost.”

Let’s keep it that way. Looser limits on political expression make for a freer America.

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.