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State adopts new disclosure rules for online political ads

November 12, 2010 | 12:48 pm

The producers of political ads sent by text message or placed on websites will have to include a message to voters disclosing who is behind them under new rules approved Friday by the state’s campaign watchdog agency.

Reacting to the growing number of campaigns going high-tech, the California Fair Political Practices Commission acted to subject online ads to the same standards as those that now apply to television, radio and print political advertising.

"What we have here is a logical extension of existing rules for more traditional  forms of political communications into the online universe,"  said Commission Chairman Dan Schnur.

The disclosure rules would apply to "electronic media advertisements" meant to go to 200 or more people, which includes paid political advocacy in text messages, e-mails, and Web pages. Internet messages posted or sent by individuals who are not paid by campaigns, including campaign volunteers and bloggers, would be exempt.

However, the panel said it would consider more rules in the future for cases in which bloggers are paid by campaigns. The rules do apply to paid political ads posted on a blogger’s website.

The new regulations were welcomed by Katie Fleming, a policy advocate with California Common Cause, which promotes an open political process.  "We think that these proposed regulations would be a historic step to shed sunlight on the campaign activities online," Fleming told the panel. "We think these regulations have done a great job balancing the public’s need for information with the freedom of expression we are enjoying online."

Many campaigns are unable to afford to buy time on television and have been posting their political ads on YouTube or other websites. In some cases they then send out mass e-mails with links allowing voters to view the ads. Those ads would have to include a message saying which committee paid for them and, in some cases, identify the major donors to that committee.

The rules recognize that the Internet has allowed some candidates without much money to get their message out, Fleming said. It is "affirming that our Internet has hit the big leagues, hopefully helping to level the playing field for citizen participation in the governing process," Fleming said.

The decision to put off further consideration of regulating bloggers reflects what Schnur said would be a "cautious" phased approach to the issues raised by the new media, an issue he acknowledged would be "very tricky."

For instance, the panel has begun asking whether new disclosure rules should apply if a blogger advocates for a candidate while accepting money from the candidate’s campaign for an ad placed with several other clients beside the blog.

-- Patrick McGreevy in Sacramento

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