Friday, December 9, 2005

Re: Federal law may make blogging at work illegal

I have in front of me an article with a misleading title, but talking about something with wide ranging consequences. The U.S. Federal Election Commission oversees the conduct of U.S. elections. Over the last year or two they've been mulling the role of blogging in politics, and some bloggers have been really concerned over whether a bungling government agency might accidently strangle blogging.

See, it's clear that some political bloggers are being paid under the covers to promote political agendas. You might think that falls under "free speach", but it's really paid advertising. There's an existing rule that paid political advertising needs to be declared to the FEC and also carry notices as to who placed the advertising. This helps the public in interpreting the message.

Federal law may make blogging at work illegal Law falls under campaign-finance reform (By: Justin Malvin, California Aggie, December 9, 2005)

The article refers to this blog posting: The Reformers' Trojan Horse: Killing the Office Blogger ... and I think it's fair to summarize that blog posting as one mans theory and personal interpretation of a rule proposal being made by the FEC.

The danger proposed is this ... the FEC proposed rule that is cited limits an employee of a company to blogging (on company time, using company equipment) for more than an hour per week. According to a quote in the California Aggie article, this is just an extension of an existing rule about employee use of company time and equipment. And, to my eye this is a very benign rule as one would expect employers to be really concerned about employees blogging while on the clock.

To my eye they're making a mountain out of a molehill, and along the way trying to smear the FEC for some reason.

It's clear that while an employee is "on the clock" and using company equipment, they should be performing their job. What's the big deal?

Especially as one big concern in election law is a corporation using their employees as political activists. Suppose a company wanted to influence an election? One way is to tell your employees "blog supportively of candidate X" and lead them to believe candidate X will be good for their jobs. For example a few years ago when the push to expense stock options was being made, Scott McNealy sent an email to Sun's employees (where I work) exhorting us to support efforts to prevent that rule from being enacted. He claimed it was an important part of how we get paid, but I wonder also just how much his personal interest swayed his opinion (as a huge part of his "salary" is stock options).

I think political blogging does need some attention by the regulators. There is a huge amount of room for political blogging to affect elections. The 2004 election cycle was a prime example with bloggers playing a big role in taking down several big figures, and in general playing a big role in shaping the debate. I think that bloggers who are being paid by a political organization to blog need to declare it both to the FEC and in a banner on their blog, and that doing so would be a simple extension of existing laws.

At the same time there's a vast quantity of blogging which isn't political and doesn't need FEC regulations. So I expect the FEC to be careful in defining just what blogging the rules apply to.