Regulators on the Federal Election Commission are at odds over whether unregulated speech on social media could harm minorities by causing them to feel excluded.
"Where will government micromanagement of political speech on the Internet stop? Can't we have one forum for free speech the government doesn't need to censor?" Republican Commissioner Lee Goodman told the Washington Examiner.
His comments were a response to Monday remarks by one of Goodman's colleagues, Democratic Commissioner Ann Ravel, at the National Press Club, in which she said "microtargeting" online was allowing political advertisers to ignore minorities.
"People will say, 'Well, who do you want to reach?' " Ravel asked. "They'll say 'Well, I want to reach white women between 20 and 24. And then those groups use social media just to address those particular people.
"Which means it's exclusionary," Ravel said. "That's how social media has been used now for advertising on Facebook and other places. … You're not targeting the vast number of people who are not likely voters and who have not contributed."
She added that those being excluded were generally minorities. "Most of them are middle to lower class. They're people with lower income. They're Hispanics, they're African Americans, and they do not target them."
Ravel, a former deputy assistant attorney general for consumer litigation at the Justice Department, has for years argued in favor of regulating political speech on the Web. She succeeded to some extent in California during her 2011-13 tenure as chair of the state's Fair Political Practices Commission, implementing a rule that required bloggers to disclose whether they received $500 or more from a political campaign.
Efforts by Ravel and other Democrats to impose similar regulations using the FEC have met with more resistance. Commissioners this year sought unsuccessfully to regulate political candidates online by forcing them to place disclaimers on their social media accounts. A 2015 effort to regulate content posted on the Web by political groups and activists also failed, a defeat Democrats largely blamed on the Drudge Report.
Ravel this month cited a new reason regulations are needed, arguing that foreign powers might be able to use the Internet to exert influence over Americans. "I'm not trying to regulate the Internet," Ravel said. "I'm trying to ensure ... the really positive aspects of technology and the Internet and the ability to get out to lots of people."
Goodman, who has been skeptical of efforts to regulate the Web, said he was unconvinced. "In California, she went after bloggers, even out-of-state bloggers who might talk about California politics from a computer in, say, Florida. At the FEC, she has voted consistently to restrict free YouTube videos and free streaming videos placed on your own website.
"We addressed an advisory opinion ... that conformed to our precedents, but Commissioner Ravel said we needed to protect consumers. More recently, she said we need to restrict speech on the Internet to prevent 'foreign influence' on the Internet. And last week she said social media platforms are bad because they are 'exclusionary' and direct political messages to specific demographic groups," Goodman said.
"Commissioner Ravel has stated so many wide-ranging rationales for government regulation of political speech on the Internet that her reasoning has been incoherent to me," he added. "Consumer protection one day, preventing foreign influence springs up two years later, more inclusive political messaging the next week. Can't we have one forum for free speech the government doesn't need to censor?"