Republicans on the Federal Election Commission are accusing their Democratic counterparts of trying to open a backdoor to allow regulation of "postings and comments" on Facebook by voting to proceed with a complaint against a candidate who updated the cover photo on her site.
"The vote in this case once again reveals the sustained effort of certain commissioners to impute an in-kind monetary value to free postings on the Internet and regulate free communications," Republican Commissioner Lee Goodman told the Washington Examiner. "The second the government attributes a monetary value to a Facebook page, it can censor that Facebook page if it deems the value exceeds a contribution limit or if the Facebook page is coordinated with a candidate."
A complaint in the matter centered on Florida state Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Republican who announced in 2014 that she was going to run for Congress. "During the period that she ran for federal office, the cover photo of the Facebook page was changed to 'Lizbeth Benacquisto for Congress' and included postings, comments, and endorsements related to her federal candidacy," the filing noted, constituting an alleged contribution from her Senate fund to her campaign for Congress.
Responding, Benacquisto pointed out that Facebook is a free service that does not involve the kind of campaign finance the FEC is intended to regulate. "Facebook is a free internet service and Facebook 'followers,' 'friends,' or 'likes' have no extrinsic value because Facebook controls how posts are distributed and the information cannot be sold or purchased."
Benacquisto added that "there is no commission rule, policy, or precedent that suggests that a Facebook profile is an asset that has value" to justify regulation by the FEC. Benacquisto was unsuccessful in her run for Congress.
Staff attorneys in the FEC's Office of General Counsel advised commissioners to toss the complaint. But without offering explanation, the agency's three Democrats voted to reject that recommendation for dismissal, presumably to pursue further legal action against Benacquisto.
The commission split 3-3 back in March over whether to dismiss the matter; the three Republican commissioners voted opposite the Democrats. As a result, the case was administratively closed. The agency revealed the action through a digest on Friday, and the commission's three Republicans say they're still seeking answers seven months later as to why the Democrats voted the way they did.
The FEC Republicans issued a joint statement on Oct. 4 asking Democrats if they were indeed seeking to penalize Benacquisto for the rogue Facebook photo changes described in the complaint. "We still do not know why our colleagues rejected OGC's recommendation. To date, they have failed to provide any explanation.
"We can only infer that they voted in accordance with what they wish the law to be, rather than what the law is," wrote Goodman, Commissioner Caroline Hunter and Chairman Matthew Petersen. "If, on the other hand, our colleagues believe that [Benacquisto] violated the [law], then Benacquisto, her committees, and every other state officeholder contemplating a possible federal campaign deserve to know why."
The agency voted unanimously at least twice this year on complaints related to Facebook, once in order to dismiss a complaint against a Louisiana Democrat running for Congress, and again to dismiss a complaint against a liberal student group in California.
A commission policy dating to 2006 exempts the Internet from regulation by the FEC, Goodman pointed out. "I say let people and groups post political opinion freely on social media websites without worrying the government is going to assign a monetary value to it. My position is the position the commission adopted in 2006. That's still good policy," Goodman said.