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An unfettered Internet best serves democracy

Adam Bonin is a Philadelphia attorney While the outcome of the primaries and the presidential election is still uncertain, one clear victor in the 2008 presidential campaign is the Internet.

Adam Bonin

is a Philadelphia attorney

While the outcome of the primaries and the presidential election is still uncertain, one clear victor in the 2008 presidential campaign is the Internet.

The Internet has surely played a major role in the 2008 presidential nominating process - from massively successful online fund-raising appeals by Ron Paul supporters, to the recent "Yes We Can" video created by Barack Obama supporters, to the millions of comments posted by candidate partisans on Web sites and blogs to influence their peers. But what hasn't been discussed is why all this has been able to proceed without any legal friction. The answer lies in a little-discussed 2006 decision by the Federal Election Commission.

In 2002, U.S. Reps. Christopher Shays (R., Conn.) and Martin Meehan (D., Mass.) sued the FEC to force it to issue more stringent regulations to implement the new Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, otherwise known as McCain-Feingold. The district court judge agreed, ruling that among the gaps in the law was a failure to address online political activity. Yet rather than take the path urged by these reformers in bringing much grassroots behavior under its aegis, the FEC's six commissioners unanimously agreed in March 2006 to pass the most minimally invasive regulations possible. The new rules extended disclaimer and disclosure requirements already applying to the offline behavior of candidates, political parties and the like to their online affairs, but left citizen activity alone.

Indeed, the FEC went further than that, empowering citizens with robust and explicit protections of their online volunteer activities, and extending to political bloggers the same exemptions from campaign finance requirements possessed by newspapers, magazines, TV, and other media entities - no matter how partisan or biased they might be.

Not everyone welcomed this freedom. Representatives of the traditional campaign finance reform community bemoaned this deregulated realm, expressing fears that foreign nationals might use the Internet to infect the national political discourse, or that massive corporations such as Halliburton might abuse the online media exemption by creating their own blogs to hoodwink or bamboozle voters. "If everybody has that exemption," testified one advocate, "Then the campaign laws that we've all operated under for 30 years just crumble."

This alarmism remains false and misplaced. In a world in which a major defense contractor owns a massive television network and foreign-born plutocrats such as Rupert Murdoch hold enormous influence over various forms of media, why worry about bloggers? But more to the point, the cost-free speech and unlimited bandwidth of the Internet meant that any such toxins could be immediately and effectively rebutted by ordinary Americans.

The core purpose underlying campaign finance law is to constrain the influence of large sums of money on the market for political speech. Television and radio provide expensive and limited means of reaching the masses, and the wealthy can effectively crowd out other speakers in these realms. They can't online.

Even the reformers' worst fears of anonymous smears or attack videos being distributed online by campaign operatives raise little real concern. Such political tactics go back to the dawn of the republic, and new technology does not change the reality that the best response is for campaigns to address charges directly before they gain traction, and to trust voters to see through the lies.

Instead, what we've actually seen has been positive. The Obama campaign has leveraged the Internet to turn a geographically dispersed volunteer base into a nationwide, home-based phone bank, empowering supporters to make crucial get-out-the-vote calls to targeted Super Tuesday precincts. John Edwards' campaign allowed ordinary Americans to prepare their own campaign ads, one of which on rural issues ended up airing in Oklahoma.

And in St. Paul, Minn., a blogger named Karl just became one of the Obama campaign's more prolific fund-raising bundlers, raising more than $42,000 in only a week from hundreds of friends and strangers over the Internet. Karl, mind you, is only 14 years old.

Those of us who care about the influence of big money on politics don't really need more laws. We need more Karls.