Paid political attack dogs always have found safe haven in the free-wheeling anonymity of the Internet, but California is set to challenge that.
The leader of the state's political watchdog agency said Thursday that she wants bloggers to be required to disclose payments received from campaigns.
"The public should know about such a connection in the political arena so they can properly evaluate endorsements," Chairwoman Ann Ravel said.
The proposal is sure to be watched closely nationwide for targeting a mass medium known as a bastion of anything-goes free speech.
FPPC officials said they believe California would be the first state to place strings on political commentary.
Critics contend that government could be overstepping its bounds.
"I think if people are blogging an opinion, they have a right to do it," said Assemblyman Sandre Swanson, D-Alameda. "I just think a free press is fundamental, even if people are paid to (blog)."
Assemblyman Bill Berryhill, R-Ceres, countered that voters have a right to know who is getting paid to sway their opinions.
"Transparency is always good in government," he said.
Ravel said she initially will ask the FPPC to adopt guidelines asking bloggers to disclose before the November presidential election.
Her goal for future elections is mandatory disclosure, Ravel said.
"I think this is one of those issues that's extremely controversial, so it needs to be done incrementally," Ravel said. "But my view is, it should ultimately be required."
Payments to bloggers became a public issue in the 2010 gubernatorial election after a Placer County blogger, Aaron F. Park, was removed from a conservative website when it was learned that he was paid by a consultant for Steve Poizner.
Park said he did not hide his connection to Poizner's consultant in fact, he personally disclosed that to the operator of the website, which was receiving money from Meg Whitman's campaign, he said.
"A lot of people out there that pilloried me and talked about what I dirtbag I was, they've all been on the take for years," Park said.
A Rocklin resident, Park now operates a conservative Republican website, rightondaily.com, that discloses its consultants are paid by Les Baugh's state Senate campaign.
"A lot of the bloggers out there are getting paid in one form or another," Park said. "Some of them do it by selling advertisements on their website and some actually take direct payments from campaigns."
Park said he opposes "government telling anybody to do anything, but if these idiots would start being ethical about what they're doing there would be no reason for government to be stepping in with more regulations."
State law currently requires campaigns to disclose expenditures to bloggers, but the bloggers themselves don't have to disclose receiving payment.
Ravel's goal is to require disclosure on the website where readers view the blogger's opinions.
Details of the proposal have not yet been worked out, such as what level of payments would trigger disclosure.
Ravel said her proposal would apply to payments received by bloggers for initiative campaigns as well as candidate efforts.
The FPPC leader said it also would apply to Tweets and be broad enough to encompass smear websites, such as one that sparked controversy for anonymous attacks on Los Angeles Assembly candidate Richard Alarcon two years ago.
Steve Maviglio, a Democratic political consultant and co-publisher of a political website, California Majority Report, said that Ravel's proposal could harm free speech.
Campaigns and reputable bloggers already disclose campaign payments, he said.
"Many bloggers consider themselves journalists, and I think this is an unnecessary intrusion," Maviglio said. "What's next, newspapers, because they accept advertising?"
Other critics of Ravel's plan say the issue is complex: What dollar value should be reported for a hyperlink from one website to another, for example? And would disclosure be required if a candidate responded to a favorable blog post by later buying advertising on the site?
Park said that bloggers could evade disclosure by working for political consultants hired by a campaign, not by the campaign itself.
"At the end of the day, even if it's a good idea, I just don't see how constitutionally, how legally, you get there," former legislator Steve Peace, who now runs a nonprofit public policy group, said of regulating Internet bloggers.
But Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, applauded Ravel's proposal.
"I think people should have the right to say whatever they want, in any format, on any platform, unless they're being paid by someone else to make those comments," she said. "And if that's happening, you need to identify who you are and who your donors are."