New California Online Disclosure Law to Impact OC Blogsphere

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Orange County has a very healthy range of political blogs to choose from.  The dirty little secret, is that many of the bloggers at the better known sites are also paid political consultants.  Some disclose their conflict.  Others do not.  But even the ones that don’t, it’s an open secret that their “opinions” are bought and paid for.

A new law is about to make non-disclosure about blog posts, comments and debate a tad more interesting in the OC blogsphere.

According to a story in the LA Times, “Campaigns will now have to report when they pay people to post praise or criticism of candidates and ballot measures on blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other websites.

“The public is entitled to know who is paying for campaigns and campaign opinions,” so voters can better evaluate what they see on blogs and elsewhere online, said Ann Ravel, who chairs the California Fair Political Practices Commission.

Open-government groups endorsed the new rules, which govern “favorable or unfavorable” content — although much of the time that information may come weeks or even months after publication. Bloggers and some others say the rules infringe on free speech.

The regulations require disclosure by campaigns that pay someone $500 or more to post positive or negative content on Internet sites not run by the campaigns. In periodic spending reports required by the state, the campaigns would have to identify who was paid, how much and to which website or URL the posting was made.

Campaigns may skip such reports for posts identified on the website as paid for by a campaign. An example given by the commission was: “The author was paid by the Committee to Re-Elect Mayor Jane Doe in connection with this posting.”

Because campaign spending reports are filed months apart, readers may not know while they are reading something that the information was paid for.

That could be addressed with additional rule changes, to require more immediate disclosure of campaign spending, said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause.

So this new ruling is about to have a profound impact on the political consulting business of Jon Fleischman and The Flash Report, Chris Emami and Chris Nguyen at OC Political, Matt Cunningham at AnaheimBlog and Pacific Strategies and Art Pedroza at New Santa Ana and OC PR and eMedia Solutions.  If it were still around, “Sgt. York” at red County would be in trouble.

Blogs like ours, OurTownTustin, the OrangeJuice, the Bubbling Caldron and OC Weekly’s Navel Gazing won’t be impacted because no one at these blogs does any paid political consulting.  Accepting paid advertisements is fine; accepting paid advertisements with an ideal of gaining favorable blog coverage is not.

The new ruling probably won’t impact the seemingly legion of Internet trolls intent on spreading all manner of rumors and hate speech directed at a candidate.  But the new rules might make it harder for bloggers to allow these sort of comments without offering some sort of authentication that ties a commenter to an IP address or a real address.  Imagine the candidate who loses a close race with the difference being libelous blog entries; she or he would have a case to bring legal action against the blog commenter.  of course, there’s that element of the First Amendment at play here.

From the LA Times story:

The open-government group Consumer Watchdog praised the new regulations for aiming “sunshine” at a new and growing field of political communication.

“It’s about ensuring that the voting public knows that paid bloggers … should be viewed through the same prism as political advertisement and direct-mail pieces,” Daniel Palay, a Consumer Watchdog spokesman, told the commission Thursday.

Ravel had proposed last year that bloggers and others be required to disclose when political interests are paying for their content, but that raised the ire of Internet activists and she scaled the measure back.

“Any type of compulsory disclosure by a publisher is going to raise 1st Amendment issues,” said David Greene, a senior staff attorney at Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based group that advocates for Web users, including bloggers.

“You are always concerned about anything that is going to chill someone’s participation in the public debate,” he said.

Steve Maviglio, a frequent political operative who regularly blogs on the website California Majority Report, said the rules, which take effect in about a month, will be onerous and ineffective.

“Although well-intentioned, it will prove to be unworkable and unenforceable, creating mountains of paperwork that will ultimately lead to chilling the rapid growth of social media in campaigns,” Maviglio said.

The maximum fine for a violation is $5,000.

Online trolls are sometimes proven to be political operatives.  And using the cloak on anonymity, some trolls will say the most mean-spirited things possible.  Imagine being paid for this by a campaign to go after a rival?  It’s like putting a child pornographer in charge of a day care center.

From the story in the story in the NY Times:

Psychological research has proven again and again that anonymity increases unethical behavior. Road rage bubbles up in the relative anonymity of one’s car. And in the online world, which can offer total anonymity, the effect is even more pronounced. People — even ordinary, good people — often change their behavior in radical ways. There’s even a term for it: the online disinhibition effect.

Many forums and online communities are looking for ways to strike back. Back in February, Engadget, a popular technology review blog, shut down its commenting system for a few days after it received a barrage of trollish comments on its iPad coverage.       

Many victims are turning to legislation. All 50 states now have stalking, bullying or harassment laws that explicitly include electronic forms of communication. Last year, Liskula Cohen, a former model, persuaded a New York judge to require Google to reveal the identity of an anonymous blogger who she felt had defamed her, and she has now filed a suit against the blogger. Last month, another former model, Carla Franklin, persuaded a judge to force YouTube to reveal the identity of a troll who made a disparaging comment about her on the video-sharing site.

It remains to be seen how these new rules will work, who will enforce them and which blogger is the first one fined.

  8 comments for “New California Online Disclosure Law to Impact OC Blogsphere

  1. Junior
    September 24, 2013 at 4:57 pm

    I think that I start charging for my comments – where do I send invoices?

  2. jose s.
    September 25, 2013 at 5:19 am

    Junior, send your invoices to the national idiot society.

  3. Howard Be My Name
    September 25, 2013 at 8:14 am

    Good one, jose s.

  4. Dan Chmielewski
    September 25, 2013 at 9:07 am

    I had to delete a comment from Henry Gattis simply because he’s banned here. I admire the lengths and expense he goes through to conceal his identity. He needs to in order to protect himself against some of the defamation lawsuits likely to be filed against him once his identity is popped.

  5. Cynthia Ward
    September 25, 2013 at 7:03 pm

    The FTC has had rules in place for some time about disclosing pay, especially for endorsements. It was rooted in the issues of food bloggers getting free meals for reviews, but expanded. However, the FTC has yet to bust anyone, much like Anaheim’s Code Enforcement department they only react to complaints, and lack the teeth for enforcement.

    I would be interested in knowing how this new law impacts the Chamber of Commerce funded AnaheimBlog. Blogger Cunningham has disclosed on his own County 700 forms he is paid by the Chamber, but the Chamber PAC filings do not reflect payments to Cunningham. Thus it would seem that the Chamber is dipping into the checkbook of their 501c6 and not the PAC, to fuel the website. Given that a whopping six posts in total have promoted the Chamber’s events and mission, while the remaining articles have focused largely on personal attack of political enemies (both real and imagined) it is hard to say that body of work is not political…and yet Matt’s refusal to disclose the source of funding on the website itself seems to slip through the cracks of the new law.

    Anyone have a more educated view on this issue? Does the law apply here?

    • September 27, 2013 at 4:44 pm

      Cynthia, if you are down to counting posts on my blog, then you need to get a life.

  6. September 27, 2013 at 4:43 pm

    1) This is a stupid, anti-free speech, fascistic law – and the author of it has been nominated by President Obama to the Federal Elections Commission. What a shock: Obama promotes and advocate of increasing government control of political speech to the same federal regulatory body where Lois Lerner honed her skills.

    2) This law doesn’t apply to me, Dan. And further, my opinions aren’t “bought and paid for” but are my own. When I read you or Chris saying the same thing about the Voice of OC, which depends on OCEA funding to operate, then I’ll pay attention to such criticism for this corner.

Comments are closed.