Has California killed the golden goose?

Opinion: Regulations are squeezing California's blog publishers 

Last month, California’s Fair Political Practices Commission passed the nation’s first sweeping attempt at regulating the use of digital media in campaigns – a move that'll shake up the way social media firms and bloggers operate in the state.

Ann Ravel, the former FPPC chairwoman who left the watchdog agency last week to join the Federal Election Commission, had been on a jihad for two years trying to regulate the online media. Her interest was sparked by a local blogger who was paid by a campaign to editorialize in favor of a candidate but failed to disclose he was getting a paycheck for his opinion.

Ravel’s concerns were legitimate. Like paid political ads that have long had disclosure requirements, it made sense to apply the rules to social media so voters understandably could know if a campaign is paying for editorial content. 

But the commission moved far beyond what Ravel was concerned about. The new regulations require anyone paid to provide social media content to report their activity to the state. 

For example:

•    If a campaign hires an out-of-house social media company to post to Facebook, Twitter, or any other platform, each and every posting must be reported, along with the name of the person providing the content.

•    For in-house staff, every personal Tweet posted by must be reported, and their profile must include an ID, such as “Paid for by the Heather for Governor Campaign.”  

•    On shoestring campaigns, if a press secretary’s job includes social media, each comment posted on any type of social media outlet needs to be reported – even if it’s his or her own personal account.

If any content is shared, then the regulation requires the reporting to include the first place it appears. The only exemption is for postings made on an official campaign website or social media account (the logic being that you’d already know it was paid for by the campaign).

Needless to say, the new regulation will result in a flood of paperwork sent to the commission, which already is overwhelmed with enforcement demands. It may also chill the growth of social media in California campaigns: It’s logical for many to make the decision that posting to social media outlets is more trouble than it is worth. (Most filings are completed by campaign lawyers).

Blog publishers also should take notice of the new regulations. They too have been caught up in the FPPC’s regulatory net. If a blogger offers advertising discounts to a campaign and then writes about the race that will be considered reportable (the agency feared that publishers will accept advertising funds to pay for content and escape the new reporting requirements).

The irony here is that California is the cradle of the nation’s high-tech industry, the home of Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Facebook, Twitter, and thousands of start-ups who specialize in social media for campaigns. Ravel and the Commission failed to provide more than a handful of instances where non-disclosure was an issue, largely because self-policing has become the norm.

Sadly, these regulations may be just enough to stifle the industry’s growth, whiling providing little new information to voters. And that would be a shame. 

Steven Maviglio is a Sacramento, Calif.-based Democratic political strategist. Before starting his own firm, Forza Communications, he served as press secretary for Gov. Gray Davis and for three Democratic Speakers of the California Assembly.

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