California Watch
A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting
Money and Politics

March 18, 2010 | Chase Davis

Clarifying the line between free speech and political advertising on the Internet is proving to be a thorny issue for the California Fair Political Practices Commission, which held the first of two planned hearings on the subject yesterday morning.

The commission’s subcommittee overseeing Internet political activity didn’t take a stance on how, or even if, the commission would regulate political advocacy via e-mail, social networking sites and blogs – essentially online analogs of conventional political tools like direct mail and newspaper opinion pieces.

“I think the devil is in the details on how you draw that line,” said Derek Cressman, regional director for Common Cause, which often advocates on behalf of campaign reform issues. Cressman was among nine experts and stakeholders invited to speak at the hearing.

California is one of the first states to begin looking at online political communication. The Federal Election Commission’s first stab at such rules in 2006 led to a largely hands-off approach, requiring disclosure from campaigns and disclaimers on Internet political advertising.

But even in the few years since the FEC’s regulations, Internet politics has changed dramatically. The 2008 presidential campaign showed in many ways how far online campaigns have evolved, and these days, anyone following the race for governor or U.S. Senate in California are subjected to a constant barrage of e-mails, Tweets and messages on myriad social networking sites.

Several people who attended the hearings called for more clear guidelines on what types of online political communication should be regulated and what currently must be disclosed.

For example, does a Tweet written by a representative of a political committee need to include the committee’s name, as is the case for print and television advertising? How could you fit the name into 140 characters?

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