Dan Morain

Telegrams, typewriters, vitriol and politics in the Internet age

Ann Ravel is the new chairwoman of the Federal Election Commission, and former chairwoman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission.
Ann Ravel is the new chairwoman of the Federal Election Commission, and former chairwoman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission. rbyer@sacbee.com

With no discernible drama, the Federal Election Commission last week voted to make Ann Ravel its new chairwoman.

It was quite a change from the invective flung Ravel’s way in the two months since she floated the notion that the Federal Election Commission might want to revisit how it oversees campaigning on the newfangled thing called the Internet.

Ravel is the former California Fair Political Practices Commission chairwoman who came from the Silicon Valley, where she had been Santa Clara County counsel. President Barack Obama placed her on the FEC last year.

Her Obama connection was enough to make her suspect in the view of conservative partisans. But then she told commissioners that in the coming year, it’d make sense to gather politicos and technology wonks together to discuss the commission’s role overseeing e-politics.

FEC regulations don’t refer to horses or buggy whips. But they do mention microfilm, typewriters, carbon copies and telegrams, which campaigns have not used in years.

The commission adopted its Internet rules on March 27, 2006, when it basically agreed not to regulate it. In 2006, YouTube was in diapers. Twitter didn’t hatch its first tweet until July 2006. Breitbart wouldn’t be birthed for another year. Pinterest wasn’t a glimmer in a venture capitalist’s eyes.

“Technology has changed so much since 2006. It behooves us to talk to technologists and have a thoughtful discussion,” Ravel told me.

She hopes to spend part of her year as FEC chairwoman delving into what role the commission might have in e-politics. But thoughtful discussions in Washington? How quaint.

Commissioner Lee Goodman, a Virginia lawyer whose firm represents Republicans and whose appointment was championed by Senate leader-to-be Mitch McConnell, took to Fox News and talk radio with ominous warnings.

“I can’t imagine the deterrent effect if the federal government were to begin imposing a disclosure regime every time you want to blog about politics,” Goodman said on one of the shows.

The talkers accepted Goodman’s views as gospel.

“Is this not just basically another shot at censorship on the Net and something of a tremendous overreach?” Ed Berliner asked on a Newsmax webcast.

“Well, Ed, the Internet has facilitated hundreds of thousands of voices on a level playing field,” Goodman replied. “And the specter of the federal government starting to regulate thousands of websites, and YouTube postings and videos, and chat rooms, podcasts and webcasts, and all of those ways American people communicate over the Internet, is truly an ominous suggestion.”

“A monstrous proposal,” Berliner said.

“What is it about liberty that drives bureaucrats crazy?” FreedomWorks blogged, twisting what Ravel had said. FreedomWorks is a conservative nonprofit political organization that reported $25 million in combined revenue in 2011 and 2012.

Tea Party Patriots, whose most recent nonprofit tax return shows it received a combined $40 million in 2011 and 2012, blasted an email to its followers warning that “any video you post of your own political commentary will fall under the scrutiny of the federal government.”

No matter that Ravel suggested nothing of the sort. She was quickly deluged by invective from people using, what else, the Internet.

“Die, fascist, die!” a woman named Diana wrote in an email.

“Pravda would be proud of you, or Joseph Goebbels,” Dwayne and Vicki added. “Keep it up, and the pitchforks will come out, and then you and your ilk will have no place to hide and the People will have their justice.”

And then there was the sexist stuff, and the garbage too vulgar to reprint.

Goodman didn’t call me back. Perhaps he had an inkling I might not have been quite so fawning as the faux interviewers.

The flare-up began when a liberal nonprofit group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, complained that a conservative nonprofit, Checks and Balances for Economic Growth, failed to file public disclosures with the commission for its 2012 campaign in Ohio.

Checks and Balances had spent $900,000 on ads claiming Obama and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, had launched a “war on coal.” As part of its campaign, Checks and Balances posted slick commercials on YouTube.

As happens on any matter of any consequence, the six-member commission, which is evenly divided among Democrats and Republicans, deadlocked 3-3 on whether Checks and Balances had violated FEC regulations.

“We are concerned by the apparent trend among some on the commission to regulate and deter citizens’ use of technology and the Internet to facilitate public political discourse,” the three Republicans wrote.

Ravel answered by citing basic realities: Anyone can watch TV on the Internet. Cable companies’ content is readily available on smartphones and tablets.

“Some of my colleagues seem to believe that the same political message that would require disclosure if run on television should be categorically exempt from the same requirements when placed in the Internet alone. As a matter of policy, this simply does not make sense,” Ravel wrote in October.

As head of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, Ravel pushed for a regulation requiring bloggers to disclose whether they were being paid by campaigns. Although she said her goal is not necessarily to do the same nationally, California campaigns hardly ground to a halt in 2014.

Democratic communications consultant Steve Maviglio blogged critiques and tweeted snark about Proposition 45, the failed initiative that sought to give greater power over health insurance to the Insurance Commissioner. He also disclosed on his posts and Twitter handle that he was getting paid by the No-on-45 campaign, $10,000 a month.

“That should be disclosed,” Maviglio said. “It is not burdensome.”

The campaign for Proposition 48, which sought to open the way for a new Indian casino in Madera, paid at least $11,200 to Jon Fleischman, proprietor of the conservative Flashreport.com and a writer for Breitbart.

Fleischman wrote favorably about the Yes-on-48 campaign, disclosing in one instance that he was a paid consultant to the Proposition 48 measure, but not in another instance. He said his contract was for consulting, not for writing.

“You start getting into a slippery slope,” Fleischman told me. “First, you start the disclosure, and then you limit free speech. I worry about having regulators who I disagree with telling me what I have to do.”

Fair enough.

Anyone who writes for a living understands the importance of the First Amendment. But anyone who writes about campaigns understands that the Internet is the future. Voters turning to the Net for information have a right to know who the sock puppets are, and who pays their way.

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @danielmorain.

The Federal Election Commission is soliciting comments about voter views about disclosure of campaign activity and money in politics. The deadline for filing is Jan. 15. Here is a link for submitting comments.

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