It's not about free speech

Know this much about the so-called Online Freedom of Speech Act, which almost snuck through the U.S. House of Representatives last week: It has virtually nothing to do with freedom of speech.

As is almost always the case in politics, this dust-up is really about money - in this instance, campaign contributions. What you have is a backdoor attempt to exempt the Internet from a 3-year-old campaign finance reform law that was designed to limit the ability of special interests - be they liberal, conservative or agnostic - to influence federal elections through unfettered political contributions.

Right now the law that covers print and broadcast political advertising also covers Internet-based ads, as it most assuredly should. Online political advertising is but a drop in the bucket today relative to the other varieties, but no one who follows politics or the Internet believes that such will be the case for much longer. That's why the Online Freedom of Speech Act threatens to create more than a mere loophole in campaign finance law.

''It reopens the floodgates of corrupting soft money," said Rep. Martin Meehan (D-Mass.) a co-author of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. ''This is no minor affair. This is a major unraveling of the law."

And know this, as well: The faux First Amendment protectors will be back, and, absent a public outcry, they may well have the muscle to succeed next time around. Last week's action saw supporters of the Online Freedom of Speech Act garnering a 225-to-182 vote majority, which failed to carry the day only because the measure required a two-thirds' majority because its sponsors bypassed normal legislative channels to seek an expedited decision.

Expedited, as in let's dispense with all the usual debate and public scrutiny. The irony of limiting debate on a "free speech" bill was not lost on opponents of the measure.

Nor was the rhetoric of the bill's supporters subtle.

"Without this legislation, I fear that the cold, calloused and clumsy hand of bureaucrats may stifle political speech in cyberspace," warned the bill's lead sponsor, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas).

Why a paper-pushing bureaucrat's hands would be calloused is beyond me, but that's beside the point. What Hensarling and like-minded lawmakers would have the public believe is that this legislation is all about protecting bloggers and other "lone pamphleteers" who have made the Internet an increasingly potent force in electoral politics.

That such concerns are largely a pretext for opening an online loophole in campaign finance law does not mean they are entirely without merit, of course. Bureaucrats - be their hands calloused or finely manicured - have been and will always be perfectly capable of doing dumb things in the name of noble principles.

As we speak, the Federal Elections Commission is drafting rules that will govern political ads and speech on the Internet. It's perfectly reasonable to be concerned that the details will be littered with little devils. Should that happen, we can all break out our whuppin' sticks and set to work on correcting matters.

In the meantime, there is simply no need to sacrifice reasonable campaign finance reforms over the prospect of run-amok regulations that haven't even been written.

Moreover, opponents of the bill were more than willing to address these legitimate concerns. They tried to file an amendment that would have explicitly protected bloggers from being defanged while continuing to allow the government to regulate Internet advertising to the same degree as print and broadcast advertising. The amendment did not receive an airing.

There are those who argue that money and speech are indistinguishable in the context of political action: Limiting the former is by definition limiting the latter, these folks argue, whether we're talking about the Internet or traditional media.

It's a point of view, albeit a minority one that has failed in the federal legislative arena and the court of public opinion. Most Americans clearly prefer that the government play a role in limiting the influence of money on electoral politics.

And there's no reason to believe they want to make an exception for the Internet.

Feel free to exercise your freedom of speech. The address is buzz@nww.com.

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.
Related:

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

IT Salary Survey: The results are in