TCS Daily


Internet Utopia

By Ryan H. Sager - June 8, 2005 12:00 AM

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse -- sorry, that's Sens. John McCain and Russ Feingold and Reps. Chris Shays and Marty Meehan, Congress' Dark Knights of Campaign-Finance Reform -- have a message for bloggers: They're not "out to get them."

The scare quotes are theirs.

In comments submitted to the Federal Election Commission last week, as the regulatory body seeks advice on how to apply the McCain-Feingold law to the Internet, the enemies of the First Amendment had to walk a fine line. On one side, the politicians in them wanted to genuflect to democracy, open debate and all the new citizen journalists who seem to wield so much influence these days. On the other side, however, the clean-government obsessive-compulsives in them knew that freedom's just another word for something new to regulate.

And, so, the four created an immensely entertaining document for the FEC commissioners -- and for any private citizens who want to see whether the politicians who are trying to put a straight-jacket on the blogosphere even understand what it is.

"All of us were candidates for reelection in 2004," the four write. "We saw firsthand the way the Internet is changing, and in many ways improving, political discourse."

So far, so good.

"The opportunities that the Internet provides for average citizens to participate in political debate are the most significant change in the way that campaigns are conducted since the advent of television. The Commission must tread very carefully in this area so as not to stifle the virtually limitless potential of this exciting medium."

Yes, yes.

"At the same time..."

Uh-oh.

"...there is no reason to believe that monied interests will not attempt to use the Internet to influence politics and policy as they attempt to do with other modes of communication. Indeed, there is every reason to expect that they will."

Damn those monied interests, ruining an exciting medium for the rest of us! Damn them all to hell!

Of course, as usual, McCain et al. don't bother to explain just why monied interests shouldn't have every right to try to "influence politics and policy."

But, at least in this debate, that logical leap is beside the point.

The fact is that in the debate over extending campaign-finance regulation to the Internet, the so-called "reform community" -- i.e., the front groups for the eight liberal foundations that have been the money behind the clean-government movement since the 1990s -- has yet to offer a compelling rationale for why money spent on politics online needs to be controlled at all.

That is, even if one accepts the idea that money spent on TV attack ads and the like is somehow corrupting and destructive, there's no reason to believe that the dynamic is (or will be in the future) the same on the Internet.

This isn't because the Internet is some magic place where the rules of the real world don't apply. It's because the Internet is an active medium, whereas most traditional media (at least those which most trouble the reformers) are passive. In other words, while TV and radio ads bombard average Americans while they go about their daily business, people actually have to seek out content online.

Given that fundamental difference, one is left to wonder just how monied interests would exert their dreaded "influence" on the Web.

Would they buy thousands upon thousands of banner ads? Pop-ups? Pop-unders?

Would they set up gigantic Web sites, so attractive, so sprawling, so enticing that hapless Web surfers would be unable to avoid being drawn to them?

Would they create extra-spiffy Flash animations?

Just how would this influence be wielded?

No doubt, "monied interests," as McCain and Co. so charmingly and anachronistically call American businesses and labor unions and entrepreneurs, could do all of these things. But there's no reason to assume that they would be effective.

The entire point of the Internet -- or at least the reason for its success -- is that it takes money about as far out of the equation as it can get. Tens of thousands of blogs can reach as many people as are willing to listen for dollars a month. Sure, not every one of these blogs has the capacity to create fancy videos, animations or other bells and whistles. But a lot of them do -- and not just those in league with moneyed interests.

In short, money just isn't that big an advantage on the Internet. Credibility, reliability, wit, intellect, populist appeal -- these are the coins of the Internet's realm.

In fact, the Internet resembles in many ways the campaign-finance reformers' long-sought utopia: full public financing of political campaigns. While the government is of course not financing anyone on the Internet, the outcome is the same: For an absolute pittance, every idea, every political philosophy, every candidate has access to a soap box.

The only limitation is how many people care to listen.

Why, when the free market has gone and created the exact state of affairs the reformers have long claimed to desire, are the McCains of the world looking to crack down?

Because the reform movement has never been about freedom. It has always been about control.

Ryan Sager is a member of the editorial board of The New York Post. He also edits the blog Miscellaneous Objections and can be reached at editor@rhsager.com.


 

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