This article provides an overview of provisions in the Federal Election Campaign Act (the Act), as well as regulations and advisory opinions (AOs) implementing and interpreting them, that apply to the use of the Internet by federal political committees. For more information on whether and how political committees must register and report with the FEC, see 11 CFR 102.1.
Disclaimer requirements for political committees' own websites and email
The Act and FEC regulations require all political committees to place disclaimers on their public websites. Moreover, if a political committee sends more than 500 substantially similar emails, each message must include a disclaimer. 11 CFR 110.11(a). For specific disclaimer requirements, see 11 CFR 110.11(b) and the Commission’s brochure "Special Notices on Political Ads and Solicitations."
Political committees' paid advertisements on other persons' websites
All political committee communications that are placed on another person’s website for a fee are considered "general public political advertising," and are thus "public communications" under the law. 11 CFR 100.26. FEC rules on coordinated communications (11 CFR 109.21) and disclaimer requirements (11 CFR 110.11(a)) apply to paid web advertisements by a political committee. Note, however, that political committees do not need to display disclaimers on web-based text ads they place through an automated ad program if the full disclaimer instead appears on a "landing page" when a user clicks through the text ad. See AO 2010-19 (Google, Inc.).
Online fundraising guidelines
The Commission has issued several AOs clarifying that political committees engaged in online fundraising must comply with the Act’s recordkeeping and reporting provisions and be able to ascertain whether contributions received are permissible. These requirements apply whether the committees are selling merchandise or other items, or simply collecting straightforward donations online.
Recordkeeping and screening requirements
First, committees using the Internet for fundraising must comply with the contribution recordkeeping requirements. In particular, they must make "best efforts" to obtain and report the identification of donors who contribute more than $200 during a calendar year. 11 CFR 104.7; See AO 2011-13 (DSCC). Also, committees must maintain electronic records and contributor data for three years after the date on which it reported the contributions. 11 CFR 102.9(c).
Second, committees must examine all contributions received for potential illegality. 11 CFR 103.3(b). In a series of AOs, the Commission has approved committee proposals to safeguard against soliciting prohibited contributions, including informing potential contributors of all of the Act’s prohibitions, including the prohibitions on contributions from corporations, labor organizations, federal government contractors and foreign nationals, and the restrictions at 11 CFR 110.19 on contributions from minors. AOs 2011-13 (DSCC), 2007-30 (Chris Dodd for President), and AOs cited within contain detailed examples of Commission-approved language and mechanisms for vetting contributors.
Use of commercial vendors to process contributions raised online
The Commission has also permitted businesses to administer online fundraising for political committees, so long as they:
- Provide their services at the usual and normal charge and in their ordinary course of business;
- Use separate merchant accounts and timely forward contributions to political committees; and
- Forward relevant contributor information. See AOs 2012-35 (GTSG) and 2012-31 (AT&T).
Processing fees charged by commercial vendors for their services to political committees are considered to be part of the contributions made by individual contributors to the political committee. See AOs 2007-04 (Atlatl, Inc.), 2004-19 (DollarVote) and 2002-07 (Careau), and AOs cited within.
Additional rules for corporate/labor/trade PACs
In addition to complying with the fundraising guidance above, separate segregated funds established by corporations, labor organizations or trade associations must also ensure that their online solicitations comply with the basic solicitation rules for SSFs. Generally, SSFs may only solicit contributions from the restricted class of their connected organizations and must include special notices regarding the voluntary nature of an SSF contribution.
In AOs, the Commission has required SSF Intranet and websites to be accessible only to the restricted class. To enable this, the Commission has approved the use of a password log-in for the SSF web page. The log-in page must include a statement that the SSF may only solicit its restricted class for contributions and that the SSF will refund contributions from those outside the restricted class. Once accessed by a member of the restricted class, the web page with the solicitation must include the required solicitation notices for SSFs. AOs 2006-03 (Whirlpool) and 2000-07 (Alcatel).
The connected organization may also maintain an email list to send PAC solicitations to members of the organization’s restricted class. Those solicitations must include the required notices for every SSF solicitation under 11 CFR 114.5. AO 2000-07.
Internet activity conducted by vendors
A commercial Internet services vendor may offer its services to a political committee without making a contribution to the committee, as long as it charges the usual and normal fee for its services. Failure to do so could result in a prohibited contribution. For example, in AO 2004-06 (Meetup, Inc.), an online service offering a web platform for arranging local gatherings was permitted to provide both its free and fee-based services to federal candidates and political committees as long as it did so on the same terms it offered to all similarly situated persons in the general public. In contrast, in AO 1996-02 (CompuServe, Inc.), the Commission concluded that a corporation could not provide free online accounts to candidates, because the company normally charged a fee.
Recently, the Commission has approved a number of proposals involving online platforms that offer services to potential political contributors. The Commission found that entities that process contributions as a service to contributors, and not to the recipient political committees, are not making contributions to those committees. See AO 2015-15 (WeSupportThat.com) and AOs cited within.