FPPC chair backs away from mandatory disclosure of blogger payments
April 30, 2012
By John Hrabe
Following widespread criticism from online pundits and free speech advocates, California’s political watchdog is backing away from a plan to require news websites and bloggers to disclose payments received from campaigns and political committees.
Ann Ravel, chairwoman of the Fair Political Practices Commission, announced earlier this month her intention to pursue regulations of bloggers that are funded to advocate for or against candidates. “Ultimately I’d like to see the FPPC require it,” Ravel declared at an April 19 campaign finance conference in Sacramento, the Orange County Register reported. After listening to bloggers’ concerns, Ravel now says that that she will be looking for other ways to inform the public about any potentially biased online sources.
“There are probably insurmountable complexities to making them mandatory,” Ravel told CalWatchDog.com while on vacation in South America. “As opposed to asking the bloggers to do it on their sites, which is the most effective option for the consumer, it may be more reasonable and less problematic to require that we get an isolated accounting from the committees” for the campaigns.
“The committee should have the obligation, but not the blogger or the news media,” she added.
In addition to greater itemization of campaign committee payments, Ravel discussed a voluntary disclosure process for voters to verify with the FPPC that a blog or website does not receive campaign funds.
“Most people get [campaign] information from the Internet, and it should be known to them if people are getting paid,” she said.
Ravel’s reversal received mixed reaction from political bloggers.
“Today’s voluntary disclosure will be tomorrow’s mandatory regulation,” said Jon Fleischman, publisher of the Flash Report, a website for which this author serves as a senior editor. “If the FPPC starts with voluntary disclosure of campaign payments, it will inevitably become a mandatory requirement of all blogs and websites.”
Other bloggers welcomed the idea of a voluntary disclosure process.
“I’d be happy to voluntarily post every dollar I receive,” said Scott Lay, who publishes AroundtheCapitol.com, a non-partisan news aggregation website. “Let’s face it, we have some big time flacks that take money and tweet and blog all day long for money.”
Critics of a state-level disclosure requirement also complained that they would be at a disadvantage to websites that are physically based out of the state. “The Internet is global,” wrote Mark Paul on his blog, the California Fix. “The commission’s jurisdiction is limited to California.”
The state’s top campaign regulator, who spoke to us by phone from Brazil, agreed that the Internet age changes how political information is shared and campaigns are regulated. However, she steadfastly defended the agency’s authority to regulate online political activities designed to influence California elections, even if sites are physically based out of the state.
“I believe we do have the power to go out of state,” Ravel said of online political activity intended to influence the California electorate. “If there is money being spent, no matter where that money comes from, we have the power to regulate that.”
CalWatchDog.com has previously reported that some legal experts believe legal precedents could allow California’s political regulatory agency to cross state lines. UCLA law professor Stephen C. Yeazell argues that Pavlovich vs. Superior Court, a 2002 California Supreme Court case, established an “effects test” for evaluating jurisdictional claims in the Internet age. He believes it could provide a legal justification for the FPPC’s regulation of out-of-state bloggers, if the sites featured California ads or content.
Bloggers Singled Out
In response to her original proposal, many bloggers expressed outrage with being singled out and treated differently from traditional media sources.
“While more transparency is a good idea across the board, bloggers often get singled out for ethics concerns when there are far greater conflict-of-interest problems with commentators in the traditional press,” said David Atkins, who has been blogging off and on for seven years for DailyKos and Digby’s Hullaballo. “I just resent the notion that bloggers are being singled for disclosure issues that are more prevalent and more consequential in the traditional media.”
Atkins, who also serves as the first vice-chair of the Ventura County Democratic Party, said that he goes out of his way to disclose any campaign affiliations, including when he is an “unpaid super-volunteer.”
“The same newspapers that are happy to print stories by the likes of Judith Miller as ‘objective journalism’ seem overly concerned about the ethics of bloggers, and that double standard seems to be applied by the FPPC in this case as well,” Atkins said.
In Ravel’s mind, “it’s not bloggers versus regular media,” as long as the outlet accepts “advertisements at the market rate.”
Political Watchdog to Fundraise
Ravel said that her highest priority as the state’s ethics czar has been to increase disclosure.
“My aim is to have everything on the FPPC website. That is the goal. All those forms should be in one spot and easily searchable,” she said.
In order to achieve that goal amid ongoing budget constraints, Ravel suggested that the state agency that oversees campaign fundraising might do fundraising of its own.
“The FPPC has the ability to fundraise,” Ravel pointed out. “I’ve been going out talking to a number of foundations and other public service groups that provide some coding work to see if there are ways to get this done.”
Stephen Frank, the conservative publisher and editor of the California Political News and Views, criticized the idea of a government regulatory agency, such as the FPPC, seeking funds from private organizations or advocacy groups.
“Imagine if Al Gore could start funding the EPA, imagine what damage that could do,” Frank said. “I am surprised that as a Democrat she wants to privatize a government agency because that is the slippery slope that she is suggesting.”
Frank believes that fundraising from “organizations of her choosing” would allow biased nonprofit organizations to influence regulators.
“I would strongly suggest she approach George Soros to fund her efforts to silence freedom of speech, that is his specialty,” he said.