An FCC commissioner strongly opposed to the agency’s new net neutrality proposal partnered with an FEC commissioner Monday to warn that new Internet regulations could influence political free speech online.
In Monday op-ed published in Politico Magazine, Commissioners Ajit Pai and Lee Goodman of the FCC and FEC joined forces to criticize FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s recent proposal to regulate Internet service providers as public utilities, which, among other things, mandate companies comply with government standards for speed and price.
Pai, who partnered with an FTC commissioner last week to warn that the plan limits the FTC’s ability to protect Internet consumers, said the new regulations could push the delicate regulatory balance the FEC has maintained over political free speech online. (RELATED: FCC/FTC Commissioners: ‘The Internet Isn’t Broken, And We Don’t Need The President’s Plan To ‘Fix’ It)
“While the FCC is inserting government bureaucracy into all aspects of Internet access, the FEC is debating whether to regulate Internet content, specifically political speech posted for free online,” the commissioners wrote.
After attempting to regulate political speech spending online in the 90s, the FEC voted unanimously in 2006 to exempt political content posted online for free from federal regulation.
Then-FEC Chairman Michael E. Toner said the rules “totally exempt individuals who engage in political activity on the Internet from the restrictions of the campaign finance laws. The exemption for individual Internet activity in the final rules is categorical and unqualified,” The Washington Post reported, adding that the rules “granted media exemptions to bloggers and other activists using the Web to allow them to praise and criticize politicians, just as newspapers can, without fear of federal interference.”
However, what was unanimous consent almost a decade ago has since split the commission along partisan lines.
Last October Democrats on the commission proposed new regulations for Internet-based campaigning after a 3-3 vote left the agency divided over whether an anti-Obama campaign violated FEC rules when it posted two videos on YouTube, without reporting its finances or adding a disclosure to the ads.
The commission split along the same lines over the same rule in a similar case two months later, and held a hearing earlier this month dealing with Internet regulation, which drew 32,000 public comments — the majority calling for greater standards in disclosing the sources behind political speech spending.
“Even though it would require four votes for the FEC to regulate the Internet, these close votes and the risk of idiosyncratic case-by-case enforcement inevitably discourage citizens and groups from speaking freely online about politics,” the commissioners wrote.
“Three former FEC commissioners and five nonprofit groups testified that the Internet should not be regulated. Even ‘a little’ regulation, they maintained, would suppress significant amounts of political speech — for no compelling reason.”
The FCC’s new Internet regulations, which are widely expected to be implemented via vote Thursday by the Democratically dominated commission, could be the first step toward more broad cross-agency regulation of the Internet — something the Internet doesn’t need, according to the commissioners.
“The bottom line is that Internet freedom works,” the commissioners wrote. “It is difficult to imagine where we would be today had the government micromanaged the Internet for the past two decades as it does Amtrak and the U.S. Postal Service.”
“Neither of us wants to find out where the Internet will be two decades from now if the federal government tightens its regulatory grip.”