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Screen grab of Ethical Oil spokesperson Kathryn Marshall during an interview with the CBC
Screen grab of Ethical Oil spokesperson Kathryn Marshall during an interview with the CBC

Simon Houpt: Media

Why don't political bloggers want us to know who's funding them? Add to ...

U.S. politics are such a gong show, sometimes all we can do up here is watch in amused horror and hope that Uncle Sam’s virus won’t become airborne and travel across the border. But every so often the U.S. coughs up a fix for itself that might actually be instructive for other, less sickly body politics like ours.

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Last week, California’s Fair Political Practices Commission proposed a new regulation – the first of its kind in the U.S. – that would require political bloggers to reveal the identities of their funders. Regulation would be limited to the issue of funding during an election. But critics say it would threaten the anonymity that fuels so much discussion on the Internet.

While we have a far less vibrant blogosphere in Canada, maybe we should embrace California’s push for transparency and think about requiring all media to reveal their funding sources.

The California proposal was inspired by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, which issued new guidelines in late 2009 requiring bloggers and other endorsers to reveal any “material connections” to products or services they might be writing about.

That meant tech bloggers, for example, had to tell readers that the shiny new smartphone they were featuring on their site was actually given to them free, or that they received other sorts of compensation. And while there have been very few cases of the FTC cracking down on mommy bloggers for saying nice things about that Disney cruise they went on, scribblers know that they’re being watched.

A few months later, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that led to the rise of Super PACs (political action committees), the fundraising Frankensteins that enable powerful interests to bankroll candidates with few restrictions. California’s proposal is one attempt to wrest back some control.

The current tussle is about more than just who is funding whom; it flicks at an ongoing battle over transparency. Anonymity – as the appreciative mutt noted in the famous 1993 “nobody knows you’re a dog” New Yorker cartoon – is one of the Web’s founding principles. People on comment boards (at least, I presume they’re people) often hide their true identities in part because they believe they would risk censure, or worse, for speaking freely.

But let’s be honest: We’re rarely talking about information that is on the level of, say, the Pentagon Papers or even WikiLeaks’s revelations.

And anonymity is too often the redoubt of rascals. Last week, USA Today reported that two of its editorial staff had been subjected to smear campaigns by a Pentagon contractor apparently upset with their reporting. The smears took the form of Twitter feeds and websites, set up in their names by anonymous individuals, which alleged they had a track record of shoddy work. After USA Today asked the Pentagon about the smears, the websites were taken down. (Gawker subsequently reported the company behind the smear was, as it happens, responsible for U.S. information campaigns in Afghanistan.)

Is it right for individuals to hide behind the folds of the Web’s skirts when we increasingly expect our governments and corporations to act with transparency? Bloggers say they develop a contract with readers based on what they write, and that it doesn’t matter who is funding their speech behind the scenes. And maybe it doesn’t. But why wouldn’t they want to be as transparent as possible?

With last month’s budget, the federal government said it would impose new rules on charities that take foreign donations. The measure was widely interpreted as an attempt to chill not-for-profits such as the Sierra Club, whose executive director regularly pens blog posts criticizing Ottawa’s approach to environmental regulation. Those organizations say the additional administrative burdens will be significant.

But while the government is at it, why not make everyone identify their funders? There’s a lack of transparency on all sides. In January, CBC’s Evan Solomon conducted a rather hilarious interview with Kathryn Marshall, a spokeswoman for the lobby group Ethical Oil, in which she refused to identify her backers, even as she attacked the Sierra Club for taking money from foreigners. Asked directly if the oil giant Enbridge gave money to Ethical Oil, she replied, bizarrely and repeatedly, “I’m not going to respond to conspiracy theories.”

On Monday, I reached out to Jordan Graham, Ethical Oil’s new spokesman, to ask why donors’ identities should be shielded. He cited a cease-and-desist letter the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had issued last fall requesting that an Ethical Oil ad be pulled from Canadian television, and spoke darkly about the possibility of individuals suffering similar threats. Like what? I asked. “Those are unknowns we don’t want to explore,” he replied.

That’s their choice, of course. But until they – and their nemeses – reveal who is funding their speech, it’s fair for all of us to wonder what they’re hiding.

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