About the Guide

Politics, the Internet, and the Net Democracy Guide

The Internet has transformed electoral politics. By lowering the financial barriers to entry into the national political election debate, the Internet has energized activists and given rise to new voices and new forms of news and commentary. While the Internet has become an integral part of campaign infrastructure, it has also spawned the rise of bloggers and other alternative media, empowering thousands of new political actors and providing an important antidote to years of declining civic participation. In the last election, there was also a record number of small online donors to political campaigns, diluting but not eliminating the influence of big money in politics.

Unlike a highly centralized "one to many" traditional media platform - which limited political speech to those who could afford expensive television and newspaper ads - the Internet's decentralized "many to many" platform permits anyone to communicate with millions at little or no cost through free web hosting and blogging services and hundreds of online forums. According to a Pew/Internet report, 75 million Americans used the Internet during the 2004 election to get news, discuss issues and candidates, and participate through volunteering for or donating to campaigns, a significant increase from 2002. There is every reason to believe that these numbers will continue to grow dramatically. For more information on federal election law and on how Americans are using the Internet to participate in federal elections, visit our Resources & Links page.

The success of the Internet as a tool for political engagement brought scrutiny from Washington policymakers about whether and how federal campaign finance reform laws should be applied to the medium. Bloggers and free speech advocates fought against applying the complex regulations to the Internet activities of ordinary citizens, and they were successful in convincing the Federal Election Commission to build into the regulations substantial protections for individuals' online political activities. For more information on the fight to protect online political speech, and on the campaign finance laws more generally, visit our Resources & Links page.

The new campaign finance rules for the Internet leave the vast majority of uncompensated citizen-initiated election activities on the Internet free from any regulation. With few exceptions, you may develop websites, blog, e-mail campaign material, raise money, and collaborate with your friends on election related activities online without worrying about running afoul of the rules. Campaign finance obligations kick in only in very limited circumstances - primarily where payments are made to place advertisements and other communications on third party blogs and websites.

About this Site

This site - developed with the generous support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York - is intended to make it easy for bloggers and other citizen activists to quickly understand the new campaign finance rules for the Internet, and to encourage all Americans to get politically active online.

The Net Democracy Guide is divided into three key parts. The "Quick Checklist" on the home page briefly identifies a range of very common online political activities. None of these common activities are restricted or burdened by the campaign finance laws, and anyone whose political activities are confined to those described in the Checklist can continue their activities without concern about the law.

But if you are unsure about what you will do online, or if you are (a) organizing a more sophisticated Internet effort, (b) planning to purchase online ads, (c) encouraging others to get active online, or (d) planning to explain the rule to others, we urge you to read the Questions & Answers on specific Internet activities as well. The Q&As explore in more detail the types of activities that are - and are not - covered by the campaign finance rules.

Third, the Q&As link into the Glossary, which contains definitions of key terms, and links to the actual regulations themselves. The Resources & Links page points to a broad range of available resources on politics online, campaign finance laws, and other helpful information. Finally, we have provided a feedback form so that we can find out if there are questions the Guide should address but does not. We also invite you to report to us issues or problems with the campaign finance laws that arise in the field. We plan to monitor the impact of the new rules on online political activity, and work to improve the rules for future election cycles.

About the Center for Democracy & Technology

The Center for Democracy and Technology ("CDT") works to promote democratic values and constitutional liberties in the digital age. For over a decade, CDT has advocated for free expression and privacy in the new global information and communications technologies.

CDT takes no position on the wisdom or constitutionality of campaign finance law, but it has been a strong advocate for limiting the application of those laws to citizen political advocacy on the Internet. In 1999, CDT wrote a seminal report - "Square Pegs and Round Holes: Applying Campaign Finance Law to the Internet Risks to Free Expression and Democratic Values" - that analyzed the threat to free speech on the Internet posed by the blunt application of the campaign finance laws to the Internet. In that report, CDT urged federal regulators to refrain from applying campaign finance rules to the nascent medium, and the Federal Election Commission generally followed that approach - until in 2005 the Commission faced a court order requiring it to extend some of its rules to the Internet.

Faced with a proposed new rule that would have seriously chilled citizen election related activities online, CDT organized a diverse group of free speech advocates, bloggers and others to draft "principles" to guide the FEC rulemaking. Over 1000 experts and online activists signed the principles, which were submitted to the FEC as part of the official record. The new FEC rule that was adopted closely mirrors those consensus principles. For more information on the FEC proceeding, see CDT's Political Speech page.

Now that the FEC has adopted a rule that gives ample breathing room to ordinary Americans seeking to use the Internet to engage in election related activity, CDT wants to make sure that people get the message that - with very few exceptions - they don't need to understand campaign finance reform law, or hire a lawyer, before their voices can be heard on the Internet in the upcoming federal election.

Legal Disclaimer

Please note that this guide is not intended to provide legal advice. The information provided here is general in nature and not intended to answer specific questions for individual situations. If you are planning to engage in the activities identified in this guide as subject to campaign finance regulation, you should seriously consider consulting with an attorney. Only an attorney who knows about your specific situation can provide definitive advice about how the campaign finances laws might apply to your online speech. For more general information on federal election law, visit our Resources & Links page.

Privacy Policy

  • CDT does not sell, rent, exchange or otherwise disclose our mailing lists or information about our site visitors.
  • CDT does not track visitors to our Web site. Our site captures limited information (user-agent, last URI requested by the user, client-side and server-side clickstreams) about visits to our site, but we use this information only to analyze general traffic patterns (e.g. what pages are most/least popular) and to perform routine system maintenance.
  • If you choose to email us and provide personally identifiable information about yourself, we will not use the information for any purpose other than to respond to your inquiry.
  • The Feedback page of CDT's NetDemocracyGuide.org site optionally allows you to provide contact information, but it also asks you for an indication of whether we can disclose your information in an effort to improve the law applicable to political activity on the Internet. Unless required by law (as discussed below), we will honor your indication.
  • CDT does not use cookies.
  • Disclosure of Your Information: Although CDT seeks to provide a highest level of protection for your information, we may disclose personally identifiable information about you to third parties in limited circumstance, including: (1) with your consent; or (2) when we have a good faith belief it is required by law, such as pursuant to a subpoena or other judicial or administrative order.
  • If we are required by law to disclose the information that you have submitted, we will attempt to provide you with notice (unless we are prohibited) that a request for your information has been made in order to give you an opportunity to object to the disclosure. We will attempt to provide this notice by email, if you have given us an email address, or by postal mail if you have entered a postal address. If you do not challenge the disclosure request, we may be legally required to turn over your information. In addition, we will independently object to requests for access to information about users of our site that we believe to be improper.
  • If you have any concerns about this policy, please contact CDT via our feedback page or (202) 637-9800. We can also be reached at 1634 I Street NW, Suite 1100, Washington, DC 20006.