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California Proposal Would Require More Disclosure for Paid Political Blogging

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Thursday, September 27 2012

Do Not Feed The Sock Puppets. Photo: Magnus Digity/Flickr

As national attention focuses on the outsized role of Super PACs in influencing the vote this election cycle, another under-the-radar debate over how voters are influenced is underway in the nation's most populous state.

The question: Should political campaigns have to disclose exactly who they're paying for things like blog posts or social media publicity campaigns, how much, and all the places in the social media universe the payee is spreading the message?

To California's Fair Political Practices Commission Chairwoman Ann Ravel, the answer is an emphatic yes.

"I think that our role in the political process is a consumer protection role," she said in an interview. "It is to give the public as much information as possible about public officials, about campaigns, and where the money is coming from so that people can make good, thoughtful decisions about how to vote, and how to make decisions about people in public service.”

California's FPPC is the regulatory arm for in-state political campaigns. While political campaigns file their campaign finance reports to the Secretary of State, the FPPC promulgates rules and dishes out fines to political entities that don't comply with the rules.

Ravel, an appointee of Gov. Jerry Brown, returned to California from a short stint in Washington, D.C. as the Justice Department's deputy assistant attorney general for torts and consumer litigation. She got the idea from her work in DC, when one of her clients, the Federal Trade Commission, started working on rules to enforce disclosure from bloggers who are paid to endorse products.

"The essential purpose of those rules is so that people will not be deceived, and will know when bloggers are being paid to promote a particular product, that those people are disclosing that information so that people can look out for the flacking of that particular product with some information to lead to either believe it, or give it the believability that it's due," she said.

That led Ravel to propose new regulations this spring that would have required bloggers to disclose any payments that they receive on their Web pages, which led to an uproar in the local political blogosphere.

Ravel quietly absorbed those criticisms while not necessarily agreeing with all of them, and refocused her aim: Instead of focusing on bloggers, she revised the proposed regulations to focus on campaign committees reporting responsibilities. Anybody spending more than $1,000 on a political campaign in California would have to report not only how much they're paying a blogger, or Tweeter or Facebooker, but they'd have to identify the individual they're paying, as well as "the name of the Internet publication, blog or website and the URL on which the communications are published."

"Also what we intend to do, once this rule is enacted in whatever form that it’s enacted, is to have the information isolated out so that you can see it easily on the forms, because right now the way it’s done, it’s very difficult to see what the particular expenditures are, and to whom," she said. "And so we intend to have a form that will enable the public to find it much more easily, and we would anticipate having it on our Web site."

"From my perspective, this regulation is a bit of a hammer in search of a nail," said Jon Fleishman, publisher of the Republican-leaning blog Flashreport.org.

He co-authored a lengthy letter to Ravel last week, as well as an editorial with Democratic operative and California Majority Report co-publisher Steven Maviglio, on how the proposed regulation is still "unworkable, unenforceable, and possibly unconstitutional."

The duo note that the online community is doing fine by policing itself, and that there's already plenty of reporting going on as it is. They also claim that the rule would ensnare campaign workers blogging or Tweeting about their days on the campaign trail. And it would be difficult to provide the Internet addresses for every site that displayed an ad sold through Google, they pointed out.

"On the other end of the scale, it would overburden small committees with limited funds that use grassroots political communication thru (sic) friends on Facebook, Twitter followers, and YouTube posts as well," they argued.

Adam Bonin, DailyKos' general counsel and chairman of the board of Netroots Nation, said he was "shocked" to hear that California was once again considering an issue that the Federal Election Commission had addressed and dismissed in 2005 and 2006. He also wondered how a site such as the DailyKos, which is headquartered in Berkeley, can police its 300,000 users.

"I'm honestly shocked that this is coming up again," he said.

"What you're going to wind up having is, if you put the Fair Practices Commission in the role of policing the blogosphere, and social media, of policing Twitter, then they're going to find a lot of partisan complaints trying to harass people from the other side," he said. "Especially if there's no penalty for filing a frivolous complaint -- why wouldn't you say: 'Oh my God, I can't believe what this person is saying."

Indeed, a kind of a preview of that kind of accusatory mudslinging is already on view online regarding Maviglio himself, who appears to be embroiled in a fight against a group called Consumer Watchdog. A search on his name in Google yields an Adwords attack ad on him from Consumer Watchdog with the headline "PR Hack Maviglio Exposed." Underneath that is an attack ad leading to another site "Consumer Watchdog Watch" attacking the group as a shadowy front group.

But not everyone agrees that Ravel is some overzealous regulator. Two former newspaper political editors who run the California politics site Calbuzz, wrote a thoughtful post last week saying that they approve of Ravel's goal, but that the proposal still needs work.

Ravel's proposal "falls in line with everything Sunlight advocates, which is knowing, who has the resources to pull the levers -- this is just another way of doing it," said Lisa Rosenberg, the transparency group The Sunlight Foundation's government affairs consultant. "In the past, we've been looking at direct contributions, and television ads, but certainly there's a lot of money going into the online campaign world, and there's no reason that that's any less important or less influential in a political race, so it makes perfect sense to us."

Ravel is taking all the criticisms in, but she's determined to craft a rule that works as part of a broader tech-fueled push to make California politics more transparent (she wants to start a non-profit group in the next two years associated with the FPPC to provide the public with easier access to political information.) To that end, she's going to wait until after the election and convene a meeting near the San Francisco airport, so that as many members of the public can come as possible to discuss the matter.

"I really don’t want to impair open discussion on the Internet," she said. "I think the Internet is a great source for important information in politics, and just for the random individual person to be able to express their views. I didn’t want to have any unintended consequences."

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