Before this meme goes tsunami, someone needs to clarify what “registering” bloggers really means

[Update: See my later post for an update of this issue discussed in the following.]

A meme just hit my newsreader radar that makes no sense to me. In other words, it doesn’t pass the smell test and, therefore, I don’t belive it. However, it’s one of those “sounds just plausible enough” issues that picks up steam too rapidly on the blogosphere.

VolunteerVoters and Instapundit point to a gun-rights blogger who says the first bill introduced in the Senate this year, S.1, a “lobbying reform” bill, includes a provision that will require “registration” of bloggers with more than 500 readers, and who comment on policy issues. Violation would be a criminal offense.

To me, this seems somewhat similar to the dead-horse issue beaten down a couple of years ago when a Federal Election Commissioner dipped his toes into the blogger regulation waters and another commissioner yanked him out quickly.

Is this S.1 provision for real? Or is it a misinterpretation by the “Arms and the Law” blogger. I’ll let the political and policy and legal bloggers figure it out.

However here is my prediction: I think it will be discovered rather quickly that this provision is not directed at “citizen bloggers” or media blogs or individuals who are not paid by an interest group or corporation to blog in a certain way, on certain topics. Those special interest groups and corporations are already required to register all of their formal lobbying activities. Requiring their blogs to identify themselves as “paid for” by the funders would actually be a good thing, in my opinion.

Furthermore, if this scare-meme is true and the provision applies to a broader group than those already required to register as lobbysts, I’m sure the provision will die a sudden death. No lawmaker in America will want to be on record suggesting individual citizens be required to register as a lobbyst if more than 500 readers come to their weblog. The suggestion that a lawmaker would want to pass a law requiring individuals to register as lobbyists for having a personal blog just doesn’t pass the smell test.

If it is true and, indeed, it will affect those outside the current boundary of those already defined as “registered lobbysts” or those being paid to blog by such lobbysts, sign me on to the protest list.

Bonus link: A new Pew (he said “new-pew”) study says there are 14 million online political activists in U.S. today. I wonder how many of them have over 500 readers. (via: Doc Searls)

Clarification: As I’ve said, despite my skepticism, if this legislation does require individual bloggers to register as lobbysts, there will be an outcry from all directions. Here’s the ACLU’s opposition to broader aspects of the legislation, for example. Or, from another direction, Richard Viguerie. These protests regard broader implications of the bill, which passed the Senate last night 96-2. If, indeed, the bill includes the requirement that individual citizens (i.e., not advocacy organizations, corporations or those blogs they fund or pay for) who blog their personal political opinions and advocate their personal points of view are required to register as lobbysts, then I’ll gladly stand corrected in my earlier observation and will join in pouring onto the streets in protest. Likewise, you’ll find me on the street if it covers independent political or media blogs that “cover” politics and advocate a certain position but are not “advocacy” organizations. However, if it only covers those blogs that are maintained by advocacy organizations or those paid for by advocacy organizations, I still am not sure I understand why such disclosure and transparency is a bad thing. Perhaps its the use of the word “register” that is freaking people out. I’d agree that, on its surface, the requirement of someone to “register” a form of personal expression and speech sounds very un-Constitutional and un-American. However, we crossed over that bridge years ago with earlier passage of “ethics bills” and “election reform” laws. Someone who donates $500 to a candidate must disclose that contribution. If someone donates $500 worth of endorsements on a blog should their requirement for disclosure be any less? (That is not a rhetorical question. I can think of reasons for both an affirmative and negative response.) However, we dove head-first down that slippery slope onto long ago and now we’ve reached the point where legislating transparency and requiring disclosure of motives is pervasive in state and federal governments. Those who want each dime of contributions to a candidate or lawmaker disclosed but do not want the covert connections between advocacy-organizatioin-backed blogs and their funders will have a hard time explaining to me the difference.

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  • I kinda hope it is true and it goes into law. I would love to see the federal government try and figure out how to determine if a blog has 500 readers. Even tools like FeedBurner tend to give inlated numbers.

    However, what I find interesting is your lack of comparison to magazines. How would a political blog with multiple authors (say Huffington Post) differ from the website of a magazine (say The Nation).

    I agree with you, this doesn’t pass the smell test on too many levels.

  • Rex Hammock

    Jackson, I don’t think there is ANY difference. The First Amendment should protect both.

  • Hudge

    Hmm. Instead of scuffing toes in dirt pondering whether it is true and what might happen if so, why not look up the text of the bill and see? I did. Now I am off to send some emails so Bill Gates will send me money.

  • Rex Hammock

    Bill, surely you aren’t suggesting that the text contained in a piece of legislation is actually what it means. Clarity of intent is not the strong-suit of the legislative-bill scribes. Indeed, the ability to obscure intent is an artistic talent highly prized on Capitol Hill.

  • Hudge

    I don’t believe I said what I found there. Anyway, I like an activist judiciary.

  • I’m a bit confused here. The documents I found on the senate.gov website indicate the law was passed in March 2006, not January 2007:

    http://rules.senate.gov/hearings/section.htm
    http://rules.senate.gov/hearings/S2349.pdf

    Is this the same Act, or something else entirely?

  • Rex Hammock

    Matthias, the legislation to which you point was in the last congressional session (the 109th Congress). The legislation passed last night by the Senate is S.1 of the new congress that just convened (the 110th Congress). A “congress” lasts two years. All legislation passed during a one congress that is not signed into law “expires” at the close of that Congress. So, while some of the language of that previous legislation may be in the new bill, the bill passed by the Senate during the 110th Congress last night is a completely different piece of legislation from that which was considered in the 109th Congress. (Thus ends my civics lesson of the day. Note: A long, long time ago (I think it was the 23rd Congress), I worked on Capitol Hill for three years as a legislative aide, so I can go at least five minutes on this topic.)

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