The Cost of Political Speech

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
May 31 2000 3:00 AM

The Cost of Political Speech

Two well-financed political sites are battling before the Federal Election Commission over the right way to get candidates online.

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Slate, the Industry Standard, and washingtonpost.com join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000. 

Two matters before the Federal Election Commission that have attracted the attention of civil liberty advocates and Internet entrepreneurs could have as much to do with free enterprise as free speech. The latest installment in a four-year-old debate about how candidates can campaign online pits two of the best-funded and most prominent commercial political portals. Backed by a combined $80 million in venture capital, Voter.com and Grassroots.com are engaged in a war of words and legal complaints that could only happen where the hypercompetitive worlds of business and politics collide.

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Both sites have used substantial financial backing to put their brands on some of the biggest names in politics and media. Former White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry, for example, serves on the Grassroots.com board of advisers, and Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein recently signed on as Voter.com's executive editor. Now the companies' potential profits may rest with the FEC. The bipartisan government commission, which enforces federal campaign-finance laws, is considering two related matters that could determine whether Grassroots.com can legally provide free Web space to candidates or if it is required to charge for those services, the way Voter.com does.

In April, the National Law and Policy Center, a conservative government watchdog group, went before the FEC to claim that Grassroots.com was making illegal corporate contributions to candidates by offering free Web space and campaign services.

Less than a month later, Voter.com filed a separate request that the FEC legally bless its business model, which is based in part on charging campaigns for the same type of space and links that Grassroots.com gives away. Voter.com also questioned whether a 1999 FEC ruling that allowed the nonprofit political site DNet to post candidate statements online for free was still valid after Grassroots.com bought DNet and made it a key component of its commercial operation. That question is almost identical to the one posed by the NLPC in its complaint. Voter.com and the NLPC say there was no coordination between their filings.

In a letter to the FEC following Voter.com's request for opinion, Grassroots.com called its competitor's business model "disastrous if imposed on the rest of the Internet political community."

A Grassroots.com internal e-mail that was submitted to the commission as part of an NLPC filing also speculates that "one of our [Grassroots.com's] competitors is indirectly behind this nuisance." A Grassroots.com spokeswoman said a similar e-mail was sent inside the company, but she could not verify any specific part of the e-mail because she said it could have been doctored.

NLPC Chairman Peter Flaherty said, "It appears that both of these organizations [Voter.com and Grassroots.com] are trying to get the federal government to get the FEC to give them a competitive advantage."

The debate over how to apply Watergate-era election laws to the Internet has been going on since 1996, when the FEC prohibited CompuServe from providing free e-mail accounts to federal candidates. Recent decisions, including the one regarding DNet, have been less restrictive—allowing these new nonpartisan commercial political sites to post information provided directly by the campaigns. News organizations already enjoyed similar exemptions that allowed them to report candidate statements since 1975.

Commercial political sites pay close attention to FEC policies on these issues. "They are not business issues for us; they're policy issues," said Kyle McSlarrow, Grassroots.com vice president of political and government affairs. "Grassroots is absolutely committed to free speech on the Internet."

Although executives from both political portals say that any potential FEC ruling would have minimal, if any, effect on their bottom lines, both companies have gone far beyond their principled stands as free-speech advocates to attack each other's positions.