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State regulators looking at online activism

PDC asked whether bloggers should be considered lobbyists

OLYMPIA – Blogger beware? State regulators are wondering whether online political activism amounts to lobbying, which could force Web-based activists to file public reports detailing their finances.

In a collision of 21st century media and 1970s political reforms, the inquiry hints at a showdown over press freedoms for bloggers, whose self-published journals can shift between news reporting, opinion writing, political organizing and campaign fundraising.

State officials are downplaying any possible media rights conflict, pointing out that regulators have already exempted journalistic blogging from previous guidelines for online campaign activity.

But the blogosphere is taking the notion seriously. One prominent liberal blogger in Seattle is already issuing a dare – if the government wants David Goldstein to file papers as a lobbyist, it will have to take him to court.

Goldstein, publisher of the widely read, wants to know how his political crusades could be subject to financial disclosures while newspaper writers, radio hosts and others in traditional media get a pass.

For most bloggers, Goldstein said, the work “is a hobby, a sideline. And yet they contribute greatly to the public debate and to the new journalism.

“When you start talking about regulating Internet activity, you open up a Pandora’s box,” he said.

Political money in Washington is regulated by the state Public Disclosure Commission, which compiles reports on candidates’ and lobbyists’ finances and makes the information available to the public.

The agency was created after voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure in 1972. A second measure in 1992 added contribution limits and other reforms, leading to a set of rules that the state calls “one of the most exhaustive disclosure laws in the country.”

Under the law, lobbyists must register with the state, and submit regular reports about who pays them, how they spend money, and which issues they’re working on.

Groups that don’t fit the traditional definition of “lobbyist” also have to file reports, provided they meet certain spending thresholds while leading public campaigns intended to influence public policy.

Earlier this year, the PDC was asked by some lobbyists whether calls to action made over the Internet fell under any lobbying regulations, and the agency began probing the topic.

“One of the issues was the grass-roots involvement, in terms of prompting individuals, in a call to action, to contact legislators, to send in letters,” said Doug Ellis, the PDC’s assistant director.

Business interests asked, “Can we do the same kind of thing? Is it proper? Do we have to report it?” Ellis said.

The question of blogging soon entered the picture. For online political junkies like Goldstein, stirring up the public and urging readers to sound off about public policy is a key part of the mission.

But, as Goldstein pointed out in a recent public meeting on the topic, the same could be said for newspaper editorialists or radio commentators – and they’re exempt from reporting their income and spending under an exemption created to protect the media.

“What you’re basically saying is, if you want to raise any money at all, now you have to report,” Goldstein said. “It’s treating us entirely different than other media outlets.”

Much of the discussion about blogging as lobbying boils down to the evolving distinction of who is and is not a member of the media.

While blogs and other online-only information sources are showing greater influence, traditional outlets – particularly newspapers – are struggling with a deeply wounded business model.

“Our definitions of all of this are changing so dramatically, right in front of our eyes,” said Sree Sreenivasan, of Columbia University’s journalism school.

Laws have often defined media by describing the form in which the information is delivered – a newspaper, a magazine, or a licensed TV or radio station. But the Internet is eroding those tried-and-true distinctions, making such definitions sound hopelessly outdated.

In this environment, Sreenivasan said, regulators facing a question about who qualifies as media might need to undertake a much more detailed examination of the content being produced.

“It’s very hard to put them in a box: ‘This is OK, this is not OK,’ ” Sreenivasan said. “It’s a waste of everybody’s time. I’d say, what is the work they’re doing?”

The PDC’s Ellis doesn’t expect commissioners to impose financial reporting for bloggers who perform a journalistic function. Since that type of activity was excluded in campaign finance rules, he said, “I don’t see any reason why they would veer from past practice.”

Lobbyist Steve Gano, who represents business clients in Olympia, said he’s not troubled by activist bloggers who practice a form of journalism. But the increasing presence of Web-based advocacy groups are a different story, he said.

If an online group doesn’t have to report the type of activities that would otherwise be considered lobbying, Gano asked, why shouldn’t lobbyists just close up shop and relaunch their efforts online?

“There’s a new business model out there,” Gano said. “I can just sit at home, e-mail folks from here, and never have to disclose who my financial backers are.”