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In The News

Calif. campaign watchdog eyes new Internet rules

By DON THOMPSON, Associated Press Writer

San Francisco Chronicle, 8/2/10

Politicians' tweets and status updates should be held to the same standards as paid advertising that voters see on television, hear on radio or find in their mailboxes, California's campaign watchdog agency says in a report being released Monday.

The Fair Political Practices Commission is considering how to regulate new forms of political activity such as appeals on a voter's Facebook page or in a text message.

It's become necessary as politicians in California and elsewhere announce their candidacies and major campaign policies through Twitter, YouTube and a host of social networking sites, said FPPC Chairman Dan Schnur.

He said California's 36-year-old Political Reform Act needs rewriting to keep up with the times.

"Our goal here is to meet the new challenges of 21st Century technology," Schnur said. "There's no way that the authors of the act could have anticipated that these of types of communicating a campaign message would ever exist."

The report, compiled by a commission subcommittee, outlines possible hurdles to regulating online content, such as how to include full disclosure of who is behind a message in a 140-character tweet or a text.

Any changes the commission makes to state law should give regulators the flexibility to respond to swiftly evolving technologies, the report says.

The commission will consider the report at its Aug. 12 meeting. If the five-member commission orders its staff to propose regulations or legal changes it could be months before they take effect, potentially pushing new rules past this political season.

Campaigns would face the same disclosure rules they do now, such as saying who is behind an ad and who paid for it, but for the first time they would apply to communications on the Internet and other forums.

The subcommittee's recommendations draw a line between paid political activity and unpaid, grassroots volunteer efforts. Political commentary by individuals unconnected to a campaign would not be affected. Nor would sending or forwarding e-mails, linking to websites or creating independent websites.

"People tweeting about someone is typically not something you would regulate," said Barbara O'Connor, professor emeritus of communications and the former director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento. "When it becomes an ad, it's a different story. When it becomes an ad it really is a replacement for a 30-second spot for a new generation."

The recommendations include requiring tweets and texts to link to a website that includes the full disclosures, although some people feel the disclosure should be in the text itself no matter how brief, O'Connor said. She testified before the subcommittee but hadn't seen its report.

California Republican Party Vice Chairman Jon Fleischman, who writes the conservative FlashReport blog, told the subcommittee that requiring even one character in a tweet be used for disclosure would be a burden on free speech, according to the report.

Bloggers who accept payment to present their opinion in favor of or against a candidate but do not disclose their ties to a campaign are becoming increasingly common in California, but the report does not recommend regulating them — for now. The subcommittee urged bloggers to voluntarily disclose on their websites if they are being paid.

If that doesn't work, it said regulators or lawmakers may need to step in.

Like California's current regulations, federal campaign watchdogs regulate only paid political advertising, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Other states also are just beginning to consider whether their disclosure laws are sufficient to cover modern communications.

 

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