Can the big web sites save the political system

I've written before about one of the greatest flaws in the modern political system is the immense need of candidates to raise money (largely for TV ads) which makes them beholden to contributors, combined with the enhanced ability incumbents have at raising that money. Talk to any member of congress and they will tell you they start work raising money the day after the election.

Last year I proposed one radical idea, a special legitimizing of political spam done through the elections office. That will take some time as it requires a governmental change. So other factors are coming forward.

In some states and nations, efforts are already underway to have the government finance elections. The Presidential campaign fund that you contribute to whether you check the box on the tax return or not is one effort in this direction.

I propose that the operators of the big, advertising-supported web sites, in particular sites like Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, Myspace and the like join together to create a program to give free web advertising to registered candidates on a fair basis. This could be done by simply providing unsold inventory, which is close to free, or it could be real valuable inventory including credits for targetted ads.

Of course, not everybody reads the web all day, so this only reaches one segment of the population, but it reaches a lot. The main goal is to reduce the need, in the minds of candidates, to raise a lot of money for TV ads. They won't stop entirey, but it might get scaled back.

Such a system would allow users the option of setting a cookie to provide preferences for the political ads they see. While each candidate would get one free shot, voters could opt-out of ads for specific candidates or races. (In some cases the geography-matcher would get it wrong and they would change the district the system think they are in.) They could also tone down the amount of advertising, or opt in or out of certain styles (flash, animated, text, video.)

It would be up to candidates to tune their message, and not overdo things or annoy voters, pushing them to opt out.

There can't be too much opting out though, because the goal here is to deliver the same thing that candidates rely on TV for -- pushing their message at voters who have not gone seeking it. If we don't provide that, we'll never cut the dependency on TV and other intrusive ads. Allowing these ads to be intrusive seems wrong, but the real thing to do is consider the competition, and what its thirst for money does to society. Thanks to the internet, we've reduced the price of advertising by an order of magnitude. If the price of advertising is what corrupts the political system, it seems we should have a shot of fixing the problem.

Ads would be served by the special consortium managing the opt-out system, not the candidate, in order to protect privacy. So if you click on an ad for a candidate, the first landing page is not hosted by the candidate, but may have links to their site.

A system would have to be devised to allocate "importance" to elections. Ie. how many ads do the candidates for President get vs. those for state comptroller.

One risk is that the IRS or other forces might try to declare this program a political contribution by the web sites. If applied fairly to all candidates, we'll need a ruling that states it is not a contribution. This is needed, because otherwise sites will balk at the idea of running free ads for candidates they dispise.

If the system got powerful enough, it could even make a bolder claim. It could only allow the free advertising to candidates who agree to spending limits in other media. On one hand this is just what most campaign finance reform programs do to avoid the 1st amendment. On the other hand, it may seem like an antitrust violation -- deliberately giving stuff away not just to kill the "competition" but actually forbidding the candidates from spending too much with the competition.

This need not be limited to the web of course. Other media could join in, though the ones that already make a ton of money from political advertising (TV, radio) are not so likely to join.

This won't solve the whole problem, but it could make a dent, and even a dent is pretty important in a problem as major as this.


This is a pipe dream, you obviously want to see a more empowered internet and are fantasizing about ways to make it happen. Your base argument is that "big" websites should "give away" advertising space to registered political candidates. But you refuse to say anything about why they should do such a thing. Is it in their best interest? Is someone going to make them do it? If so, who? All in all it introduces an element of control to make it "fair." Why does the internet intrinsicly have to be "fair"? Why not just let it develop on it's own, and those who make the best use of it reap the benefits? Why should the internet be singled out for your grand plan of restoring your definition of "fairness" to politics?

First of all, the big web sites all have tons of "unsold inventory" that they either leave unused or give away to charities they like. However, I also expect the owners of these sites (many of which are still controlled by tightly-knit groups or individuals) to possibly be interested in making a tremendous positive change in the political system if they realized it was within their power. It would be in their interest as philanthropists, should they decide to join such an effort using more than unsold inventory.

As to why the internet should be singled out, that's the easy one.

  • The main corruptor of elections is the money you need to raise
  • You have to raise that money in order to buy advertising, mostly.
  • The internet has created a revolution in bringing down the cost of advertising and communications.

So it's natural that if anything is to solve the corruption/influence problem, it's the internet.

To be even remotely fair, this avenue for outreach would have to be provided on an even basis to everyone, as in every single individual, championing every conceivable cause, for every possible purpose. Otherwise effort currently directed at raising money would just be redirected towards influencing the new systems gate keepers. Probably through channels much murkier than the relatively open exchange of funds we see today. And who is to say my campaign promise to reduce sexual dysfunction by selling cheap Viagra at 1-800-something is intrinsically less worthy than Ms Clintons such to sell it even cheaper by sticking a third party with the tab.

For better or worse, elections in the USA and most places have people who are classed as official candidates. There is a bar to pass to get that status, even if write-in votes are allowed, which they are not always. There are even in many places official parties which are different from smaller parties.

So yes, that's a difference. You have to get lots of signatures on a form, file the right papers etc. That's enough to keep the spammers out.

Note that this plan does not necessarily stick anybody with a tab, if it uses unsold inventory. It may for a short time diminish the donation of unsold inventory to tax exempt charities. Pretty small price to pay for fixing one of the system's grandest flaws.

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