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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

It just got easier for cybersecurity toolmakers to offer campaigns help — but only by a little.

The big picture: Cybersecurity firms have flocked to provide free services to state election authorities, and some want to help protect political campaigns, too. But those efforts have been in legal limbo thanks to the complexities of election finance law.

Driving the news: The Federal Election Commission issued its final of a series of clarifying decisions last week: Firms may offer political campaigns the same discounts they offer other customers, but only non-profits can provide campaigns with free services or deals special to the campaigns.

Why it matters: Though much of the political focus has moved to voting machines, that wasn’t what Russia hacked in 2016. Rather, it targeted campaigns and political groups — and getting their defenses correct in 2020 is critical.

Details: The FEC had been weighing whether Area 1, a phishing security company, and Defending Digital Campaigns, an election security non-profit, could offer free services to campaigns.

  • Last week the FEC decided that Area 1 could offer the same discounts to campaigns it offers to everyone.
  • In May, the FEC said Defending Digital Campaigns (DDC), as a non-profit, could offer free services.
  • Companies that want to cut prices for campaigns still generally can’t.

The intrigue: Several firms already offer free services to state election groups — including Microsoft, Cloudflare, Google and Synack — and it’s easy to think democracy would be better served if campaigns could get security tools for free, too.

  • But the way campaign finance laws are written, this would open the door for analogous groups to argue they too should be able to offer free services.
  • Smith & Wesson, for instance, could start offering free physical security.
  • The FEC’s position is that any kind of carve-out from regulations for a specific industry like cybersecurity is a matter for Congress to decide.

Area 1's case was unique, because both the FEC and Area 1 agree that offering the same pricing to campaigns as to everyone else is explicitly legal. But Area 1's unusual pricing scheme made campaign lawyers nervous, Area 1 CEO Oren Falkowitz told Codebook.

Agari, which provides a different type of email security than Area 1, adjusted plans to offer its wares for free to campaigns. It will now offer free services via non-profits like DDC.

  • Agari chief marketing officer Armen Najarian believes the restrictions in the FEC ruling will actually benefit both campaigns and companies.
  • The deluge of free services in 2016 posed a problem for election officials who didn't have the industry savvy to know which products were snake oil and which were legit.
  • That led many states to pass on useful freebies.
  • As Najarian sees it, the FEC decision will inadvertently allow non-profits to work as a kind of snake-oil filter.

Go deeper

Updated 13 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Inauguration Day dashboard

Biden delivers his inaugural address on the West Front of the Capitol. Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

President Biden has delivered his inaugural address at the Capitol, calling for an end to the politics as total war but warning that "we have far to go" to heal the country.

What's next: Biden signs executive orders and swears in day one presidential appointees in a virtual ceremony.

Mike Allen, author of AM
32 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Biden's inauguration signals a great American reset

President Biden prepares to walk the abbreviated parade route in front of the White House after the inauguration. Photo: Mark Makela/Getty Images

President Biden had exited his Cadillac with the new "46" license plates and was strolling a short stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue toward his new home when he spotted "Today" show weather legend Al Roker.

The big picture: Biden dropped Jill Biden's hand — no warning — and trotted over to the delighted Roker. POTUS gave Roker a fist bump and said, "Gotta keep doing this!" It was a very Joe moment in a day that was designed to signal a return to normality in a turbulent America.

Chuck Schumer is now majority leader as 3 new Democratic senators are sworn in

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is officially Senate majority leader after the inauguration of Vice President Kamala Harris and the swearing-in of new Sens. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) and Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.).

Why it matters: With a 50-50 Senate, Schumer will control a narrow majority with Harris as the tie-breaking vote. Democratic control of the Senate is crucial to President Biden's agenda, from getting his coronavirus relief proposal passed to forgiving student debt.