Successful Debate Founded on Successful Policy Choices
July 24, 2007
Filed under Free Expression
It's the morning after the CNN-YouTube debate and Washington is abuzz with the usual post-debate debate about which candidates won, lost and placed. But today, the pundits have something new to opine about: the Internet and its role in transforming citizens from spectators to participants in the political process. There is no question that last night's debate was a triumph for the Internet, and both CNN and YouTube should be applauded for finding a clever way to use new media to spice up the aging television debate format. CDT has been tracking the migration of politics to the Internet for a long time and it is fair to say that there were times in the last decade when we feared that clumsy efforts to apply campaign finance rules to the Internet were poised to stifle the ability of ordinary citizens to engage in election-related activities online. Its worth a look back to see the highly regulatory path the Federal Election Commission (FEC) almost took on campaign finance and the Internet and reflect on how Internet politics would look today if the Commission had not reversed its course. One of the first battles came in the late 1990's when the FEC held that the "costs" associated with a citizen-created website that criticized a member of Congress and advocated for the election of his opponent were "independent expenditures" under the law, triggering disclosure and reporting requirements under campaign finance rules. Shortly thereafter, the Commission tied itself in knots over the issue of whether and under what circumstances hyperlinks might be considered a campaign contribution. Take a look at CDT's report from that year: "Square Pegs and Round Holes: Applying Campaign Finance to the Internet." It paints a sobering picture of how the government almost sacrificed the most democratizing tool in politics with a ham-fisted application of ill -fitting rules. It was only a few years ago that a federal court ordered the FEC to write a rule that would apply the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform law to the Internet. At first things looked very dark. A staff draft of the rule would have broadly applied campaign finance to the Internet, requiring every online political activist to not only have an Internet connection but a lawyer as well. This time, bloggers organized in opposition and CDT brought together a powerful coalition to fight the rule. In the end, we won a resounding victory. The final rule exempted almost all citizens' online electoral activity from campaign finance rules and the rest, as they say is history. If you want to learn more, checkout our online politics page. All of the key documents are there. And if you want to understand more about when campaign finance rules might apply to your online activities, check out our Net Democracy Guide. The short answer is rarely, which is why last night's debate was such a success.