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May 25, 2017

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Internet becomes political battleground

Looking for Clark County Commissioner Dario Herrera's views on his upcoming congressional campaign, and want to look at the web?

Forget darioherrera.com.

Ditto for info on Rep. Shelley Berkley at shelleyberkley.org.

Those website names belong to the Republicans. Both Herrera and Berkley are Democrats.

Republican consultant Chuck Muth spent $35 to buy each of the domain names of the Democrats.

"People will automatically go to the name of the candidate dot com," said Muth, who plans to use the names to create Internet sites that show what his side believes is the truth about Berkley and Herrera. "I couldn't believe that was still available."

As people become more reliant on the Internet for information, political campaigns across the country are grabbing the domain names of their opponents, and their own, to prevent parodies, Internet mudslinging and virtual hit pieces.

In the most recent presidential race, the campaigns bought all the names they could to protect their candidates from the vicious parodies that still emerged.

But despite the maneuvering, some analysts shrug off the effect of the Internet on campaigns. State Democratic leaders say they haven't been buying Internet names as a way to attack opponents, and the national party disregards the whole thing.

"Frankly, it's not a big concern of ours," said Adriana Surfas, spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee. "Whoever's smarter and faster can get on the web and do whatever."

Herrera's campaign is downplaying the domain name loss, saying that voters are smart enough to know the difference between candidates.

"I think the bottom line is campaigns are won on issues," Herrera's campaign manager Achim Bergmann said. "It's kind of muddying up some of the issues, but we're not too concerned with it. We'll get our message out."

Muth also helped snap up jonporter.com, the domain name of Herrera's Republican opponent. Although the site is in friendly hands, Porter campaign consultant Mike Slanker isn't convinced people who look for candidates on the web are the type who can help on Election Day.

"Most people who surf the Net are probably decided voters anyway," Slanker said. "Do people look at a website and say, that's the guy I'm going to vote for? No."

The questions facing the campaigns is whether campaign material on the Internet -- which is often negative -- can hurt a candidate.

The web is virtually unregulated by campaign laws, and cheap -- with domain names available for as little as $12 a year. While political mailers must have information about who paid for them, Internet sites can be anonymous, with ownership information almost impossible to track.

Daniel Lowenstein, a law professor at UCLA and a national expert on campaign law, said despite the concerns, caution must be taken in any attempt to regulate political websites.

"The problem with regulating those types of sites is that you can't say to somebody you can't have a parody," Lowenstein said. "You want to be very cautious about regulation because political speech is protected by the First Amendment."

Slanker, who is an adviser on a number of Republican campaigns, admitted you can get away with more on the "web than in the mailbox," still "the attention they get is probably bigger than the effect they have."

As a result, political parties aren't pushing for any regulations.

Muth said he would oppose any attempts -- even Republican-led ones -- to regulate political sites on the Internet.

"I am 100 percent against that," Muth said. "This is freedom of speech, and so what if it's anonymous?

"The Federalist Papers were published anonymously."

Parody sites, the most common negative campaign material on the web, are usually so outrageous that their true intent is obvious.

But Lowenstein said that savvy campaigns could mask a website so well that it could appear to be official. That website address could then be cited on a piece of campaign mail to further confuse voters.

Tracy Westen, president of the Center for Governmental Studies at the University of Southern California, said deception that conceals the identity of the person is especially "dangerous" in political messages.

"The Internet is unregulated and there is opportunity for broad deception," Westen said. "But probably the most effective curb on that is the press."

Lowenstein also warned against regulating political speech on the Internet.

"I would not underestimate the ability of the political system to work out the problem," Lowenstein said. "It's always possible to point to flagrant examples, but the majority of the time it's not necessary to regulate it."

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