How the FPPC Can Improve Regs for Online Info
California’s Fair Political Practices Commission is moving in the right direction in their new draft proposal governing expenditures for paid online communications, which will be discussed today at an “interested persons” meeting in Sacramento. The proposal may be over-broad in some places and also needs some tweaks to differentiate advertising from other content.
But as we have said on more than one occasion, when voters increasingly get their political information from online sources, they need to know if what they’re reading is bought and paid for.
Calbuzz is an “interested person” in this discussion. And we wholeheartedly support the FPPC’s move away from trying to regulate bloggers and social media users and toward further regulation of campaign committees’ use of the intertubes. We stand at once for unfettered free speech, online and otherwise, and against unscrupulous campaigns and their mercenary sock puppets.
The FPPC’s proposed regulation would require a campaign committee to report payments to any person who is, on the committee’s behalf:
1) providing content for or posting on a web site or web log (commonly known as a ‘blog’), whether one’s own or another’s
2) providing content for or posting on any social media site, including but not limited to Facebook or Twitter
3) Creating video content to be posted online
When reporting these expenditures, whether the payment is made directly or through a third party, committees must include as much specificity as possible, including the amount of the payment, the payee, the name of the person providing services, and the name of the Internet publication, blog or website and the URL on which the communications are published.
Ads vs Other Content “Providing content” needs to be clarified. The regulations should make clear that purchasing advertising from a web site at the standard market rate does not constitute employment of the personnel of that web site, whether the site is published by a stand-alone internet operation or is the online presence of a newspaper, magazine or radio or TV station.
If however, a committee pays a website — regardless of its form — an ad rate above the standard rate, then the payment should be regarded as a payment to a campaign operative and appropriate disclosures should apply. Also, if a web site provides advertising space to a committee below the market rate, that should constitute an in-kind campaign contribution valued at the difference between the amount paid and the amount normally charged for that space.
We like the part that says in reporting expenditures, the committee must specify not only the amount and the payee, but also “the name of the person providing services.” This would prevent a situation where Campaign X reports paying Vendor Y for “internet communications” but never has to disclose to voters that the online material they’ve read by Person A, B or C was actually being paid by Vendor Y.
Also, trying to monitor Twitter and Facebook is really gnarly — people use pseudonyms, paid people may be tweeting on their time off, tweets and Facebook postings get re-tweeted and re-posted, different tiny URLs get used. We know from FPPC Chair Ann Ravel that she’s not interested in snaring paid campaign people tweeting on their time off. But differentiating those folks from full-time paid tweeters simply may not be practical.
Bloggers in an Uproar Our friends Jon Fleischman and Steve Maviglio, political operatives who also run Flash Report and California Majority Report, reacted Monday with alarm to the proposed regulations. “The FPPC should not become the Internet police,” they wrote to Ravel. “The Commission has no role in chilling political speech as this regulation proposes to do. Online communication has helped democratize elections — and this regulation would be a blow to innovation and engagement by more Californians in our electoral process.”
The FPPC proposal is a “solution in search of a problem,” they argued. “Self-policing by the online community has nearly eliminated bloggers who are paid for their work but do not reveal the source of their funding,” they said in an email about their letter. “We have no problem with disclosure, because it is already largely covered by existing FPPC regulations,” they told Ravel.
We are not as convinced as our friends are that bilge-bucket bloggers and corner-cutting campaigns won’t continue to hide as sub-vendors and secret payees as long as campaigns are not required to disclose exactly who is doing their bidding. And that means online readers will continue to have no idea whose swill their being fed.
Maviglio and Fleischman worried that a campaign would have to report if “someone working on a campaign responding to a news story and making an online comment on their iPhone,” or “a field worker paid for a weekend who distributes literature and tweets,” or “a college student paid to boost turnout on campus who makes a fun YouTube video about it.”
“If this regulation is adopted, it is not difficult to imagine campaigns simply directing everyone who works for them to stop using social networking at all due to fear of being out of compliance with these onerous rules and subject to gratuitous complaints to the FPPC by their opponents,” Fleischman. argued. “A consequence of adopting these regulations will be marked chill in some of the most well used sources of communication to engage voters in the democratic process.”
We think the blogger doth protest too much. We’re convinced Ravel and the FPPC are not out to squash free speech or prevent people working in campaigns from using Twitter and Facebook. They’re trying to find a workable solution to regulating campaigns amid the the rise of the Internet and social media as communication channels.
On the other hand, bloggers might not react with such alarm if the FPPC did a better job of bringing leading California political bloggers and internet publishers into the conversation and regulation-crafting process at an earlier point in the process. Most people who report on politics agree that there’s a role for a state watchdog regulating financial disclosure. And Ravel’s FPPC is targeting the right players — not bloggers, tweeters or Facebookers, but campaign committees.
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