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By Dan Schnur
Special Guest Commentary from FPPC Chair Dan Schnur
Schnur, the Chairman of the Fair Political Practices Commission, has submitted this op-ed jointly to the California Majority Report and Flash Report.
When the Political Reform Act was passed into law by California voters in 1974, the Internet as we now know it existed only for a small number of Defense Department researchers and academic technology specialists. So when the Act's original authors were crafting regulations to ensure that California voters would know who was paying for the television ads and direct mail pieces to which they were exposed, it's difficult to find them at fault for not providing the same type of guidance for email, web videos and online social networking.
Over the last several years, online political communication has become an increasingly important part of any campaign debate, and the amount of Internet-based political advocacy has rapidly grown to represent a sizable percentage of all campaign communication. Just as the Fair Political Practices Commission has always worked to make sure that Californians were able to access information about the source of funding for more traditional types of political activity, it became clear in recent years that state voters deserved the same guidance when a campaign message was being delivered to them online rather than on television, radio, or through the U.S. Postal Service.
We were guided by three overriding objectives in our work: to focus only on paid political communications and to do nothing to inhibit volunteer online activity; to logically extend existing rules for disclosure and transparency already in place for more traditional forms of communication; and to adapt disclosure requirements to the special circumstances of the online environment.
In some cases, this last goal can be accomplished by permitting rollovers, hyperlinks, and abbreviated disclosure for small online ads. But we also recognize that particular types of online messaging would require exemptions from full disclosure requirements due to the limitations of technology. While putting a disclaimer at the bottom of a mass email or a website would impose little difficulty on the sponsor of a paid political message, for example, the same requirements on a text message or Twitter feed would create a much larger burden. So just as some real-world campaign messaging platforms (small buttons, key rings, pens, skywriters, etc) do not require disclosure for logistical and space reasons, similar exemptions can and should be provided for online as well.
Toward that end, language was specifically included to create an exemption in circumstances where including a disclaimer would interfere with the ability of the intended audience to receive the intended message. Technology provides features such as hyperlinks or roll-overs to make sure the disclaimer information is easily accessible without being obtrusive, and the inclusion of an FPPC identification number on text messages would require approximately a dozen characters at the conclusion of the text. This identification number will take up a smaller percentage of the overall window of messaging opportunity than the amount of time required by a spoken disclaimer in a thirty-second television commercial. So while we recognize that this places a burden on the sponsor of a paid text messaging effort, the burden is no larger than on a sponsor of a paid broadcast advertisement.
Already, we have received input that because the recipient of a Twitter feed must subscribe in order to receive feeds from a particular source, the disclaimer should not be required on every "tweet". In an effort to continue to calibrate our new rules to achieve maximum disclosure for voters at minimum levels of inconvenience for political committees, our staff has already begun examining possible alternatives on this front. We are eager to make ongoing adjustments as additional information and feedback becomes available.
From the beginning, the Commission recognized the importance of not doing anything to discourage online political communication: we were particularly wary of avoiding any action that would inhibit volunteer or grassroots online activity. So an extensive outreach and information-gathering process was developed, including several public meetings where activists, bloggers, technology and legal experts, and other interested parties were asked for their input. A Commission subcommittee and several FPPC staff members were tasked with developing draft regulations, for which they solicited input and comments from a wide range of political, technology, and advocacy experts and practitioners. But even upon the conclusion of that process, they made it very clear to the Commissioners that we should continue to reach out to the relevant communities for ongoing guidance so as to adjust the regulations as necessary going forward. It was for that reason that we chose to wait until after the conclusion of this fall's midterm elections : to avoid changing the rules for disclosure in the middle of the campaign season and to provide adequate time for future adjustments and fixes as the need became apparent.
As always, the Commission's goals are to provide as much information to voters while imposing as light a regulatory burden as possible. That's why we exempted all volunteer communication, why we exempted all communications to an intended audience of 200 recipients or less, and why we did not require paid bloggers to disclose on their postings if they received money from a political committee (although the committee must include that information on their campaign filing report) .
The Internet has the potential to fundamentally change the way political campaigns are run, in California and across the planet. The reach of social networking technology has the ability to empower an electorate to become part of and to drive a political conversation in a way that has not existed in the modern era. Individual voters, bloggers, and other online activists have just as much ability to change history as even the most well-funded candidate or highly-paid anchorman .
Our goal is to foster that evolution and to encourage it in any and every way possible. But we still believe that voters have a right to know who's paying for that political communication, no matter whether it's being delivered on paper, over the airwaves, or on the Internet. Information is the true equalizer in the political process. Just as every voter has the authority and the right to be heard, that voter also has the right to be armed with the information needed to make an informed decision on Election Day. Achieving that balance is an ongoing goal of the California Fair Political Practices Commission. We look forward to working with the online community to make it a reality.
Dan Schnur is the Chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission.
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