Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Blogging, the modern pamphlet

I just read a really good article by Adam Bonin who makes the case that the Federal Election Commission should not regulate online activity. Here's a generous sample but go read the whole thing here... and the comments.
It's not that we don't trust reform; it's that we don't trust the reformers. With good reason.

[...]

As my client Matt Stoller of MyDD once wrote:

The internet kind of screws everything up, because it is an unlimited bandwidth medium. You don't buy more speech on the internet, since you can start a blog for free and anyone in the world can look at it. You earn more of an audience based on what you say and not how much you spend saying it. This has serious consequences for campaign finance limits, because it is in fact a direct challenge to the basic premise that ending corruption is simply a matter of restricting the right set of actors. The internet presents a different route to ending corruption in politics. Instead of resricting the ability of wealthy interests to participate in politics, the internet simply lowers the barrier to participation for everyone else. That is a big deal.

Rather than removing money from politics, the internet changes what money can buy in politics. It allows people to organize themselves, and makes it much easier to communicate compelling messages among large numbers of people without a lot of capital. Now you'd think that the people who wanted campaign finance limits (known as 'reformers') would look at the internet and say 'Awesome, this helps solve our problem!' But they didn't. Instead, they have held tight to their bias against participation. They think that restricting the ability of Americans to participate in the political system is the only way to check the power of wealthy interests. Actually, they have it backwards. Regulation not only won't help, it will once again raises the barrier to participation and thus recreates the worst aspects of a mass media 'limited bandwidth politics'. In reformer-land, in order to participate in internet politics you'd need to lawyer up and do things only rich people can afford. This is precisely what they should be fighting against, not promoting.

By helping small donors aggregate and magnify their impact, the Internet levels the playing field in ways that law alone cannot. The reformers, so far as I can tell, still haven't figured this out, and the ironic thing is that a Republican federal judge, the Hon. Stewart Dalzell, had explained it to everyone back in 1996 in striking down the Communications Decency Act:

It is no exaggeration to conclude that the Internet has achieved, and continues to achieve, the most participatory marketplace of mass speech that this country -- and indeed the world -- has yet seen. The plaintiffs in these actions correctly describe the “democratizing” effects of Internet communication: individual citizens of limited means can speak to a worldwide audience on issues of concern to them. Federalists and Anti-Federalists may debate the structure of their government nightly, but these debates occur in newsgroups or chat rooms rather than in pamphlets. . . .

[I]f the goal of our First Amendment jurisprudence is the “individual dignity and choice” that arises from “putting the decision as to what views shall be voiced largely into the hands of each of us”, then we should be especially vigilant in preventing content-based regulation of a medium that every minute allows individual citizens actually to make those decisions. Any content-based regulation of the Internet, no matter how benign the purpose, could burn the global village to roast the pig.

It's time to get back to first principles. As Mark properly notes, we have to start by acknowledging that speech costs money, and money isn't going away. It's just that we don't want the source of that money to distort electoral outcomes, and that the existing distribution of wealth and success should not determine who gets to win elections by overwhelming citizens' ability to decide on their own. Technology, voluntary public financing and other means may help us get closer to those goals, but listening to a community mired in the 1970s will not.


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