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Do you maintain a personal blog or website? Beware government regulators may come.

The Internet has become the preferred venue for people to voice opinions about every conceivable subject. Few issues generate as much heat as politics and legislation.Washington State is now eying Internet communications as a field for new regulation. The Public Disclosure Commission (PDC), the state campaign finance agency, is discussing guidelines for what it calls “Internet lobbying.” Lobbying can consist of someone who is paid to influence legislation and interact with legislators on a regular basis. But the PDC also regulates “grassroots lobbying”—when a person or group urges the general public to contact their legislators.

The PDC recently announced the proposal to clarify that lobbying regulations apply to Internet activity.

In order to stimulate discussion, several questions were distributed:

Are Web sites established to provide lobbying information and to encourage others to lobby for or against a particular bill or rule engaged in a reportable activity?

  • Are expenditures related to grass-roots lobbying directed to the public via e-mail reportable?
  • Are lobbying postings and responses on blogs reportable?
  • Are funds provided to “tip jars” (donation links) on lobbying blogs reportable?

On December 4, the PDC held a meeting to review the proposed regulations. The Evergreen Freedom Foundation joined others in urging caution because of free speech considerations. The Washington Constitution says: “Every person may freely speak, write and publish on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that right.” Many individuals use the Internet to exercise their democratic rights. They voice their opinions and contact their legislators. Many bloggers serve a “citizen journalist” function, reporting stories not covered by the mainstream media.

The proposed regulations could have the unintended consequence of stifling legitimate citizen speech. Suppose a person living in Spokane blogs about the legislative session, but hears that she might be classified as a lobbyist. Rather than running the risk she might simply shut the blog down. Or consider a Seattle sports blogger who comments on a proposal for a publicly-financed stadium. Is he a lobbyist?

Regulators point out that “these guidelines would help bloggers determine whether their actions are permitted.” But private individuals shouldn’t have to review agency regulations to reassure themselves that they can speak out about a public policy issue!

Also, with rapid developments on the Internet, the PDC is aiming at a moving target. While the guidelines dealt with blogs and e-mail, there is no mention of live webcasts, instant messaging, micro-blogging sites like Twitter, phone text messages, and a host of other communication tools used every day.

The PDC could offer all the clarification needed by simply stating:

“Activities that are reportable as lobbying do not enjoy an Internet loophole.”

After discussing the issue at its December 4 meeting, the PDC tabled the proposal. Two commissioners (Ken Schellberg and Dave Seabrook) favored adopting the guidelines, while two (Jim Clements and Jane Noland) felt there was no problem, and wanted more time to consider the issue. The fifth commissioner wasn’t present, so the issue stalled.

Make no mistake, however. This issue will surface again. Whatever action the Public Disclosure Commission takes, it should respect the paramount right of individuals to express their views on all topics.

Michael Reitz is general counsel of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a free-market policy institute in Olympia.

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