Member Web-Use: Not "Allowed"

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David All

Jul 8, 2008, 10:54:52 AM7/8/08
Please see the alert below from Republican Leader John Boehner warning about a proposed rule by the arcane House Administration Committee which would force "outside websites" like YouTube, Facebook, etc. to comply with their primitive and ridiculous rules before a Member of Congress is "allowed" to communicate with their constituents.

Not only could this stifle constituent interaction through a medium of their choice but how exactly does the House Administration Committee plan to enforce this rule? And won't this limit websites that can't "afford" to create a new site just for privileged Members of Congress from being added to the mix of constituent interaction?

As a co-author of the Open House Project's chapter on Member Web-use I believe that every citizen interested in openness, honesty, and access to their representative should make their voice be heard on this issue.

I am hopeful that the Sunlight Foundation will issue an immediate press release on this issue.

**** Internet Freedom Alert ****
From: House Republican Leader John Boehner (R-OH)
TO:   Online Community & Activists
RE:   An Attack on Internet Free Speech
DATE: 08 July 08
I’m writing to alert you to an attack on free speech that is making its way through Congress.  This attack, which should concern activists of all political affiliations across the ideological spectrum, comes in the form of a new congressional rule that would prohibit Americans from viewing content published by Members of Congress on websites that are not “approved” by the Committee on House Administration, the panel that creates rules governing the internal operations of the U.S. House.
Millions of Americans today utilize free, unregulated and uncensored websites like YouTube on a daily basis to not only obtain information from their elected leaders about what’s going on in their government, but to also give feedback and easily share that information with others.  The advent of new media technology has empowered American citizens with real-time information about the policy debates and actions being undertaken by Congress.  This has increasingly forced Congress to become more transparent and made it easier for American citizens to hold their elected leaders accountable.
The Committee on House Administration is considering a new rule that could bring this trend to a screeching halt.  The Committee is considering the adoption of new rules that would require outside websites such as YouTube to comply with House regulations before Members of Congress could post videos on them.  Under the proposal, the House Administration Committee would develop a list of “approved” websites, and Members of Congress could post content only such websites.  The rule has been proposed by the Democratic chairman of the Commission on Mailing Standards, Rep. Michael Capuano (D-MA), and is being considered for adoption by the Committee on House Administration, chaired by Rep. Robert Brady (D-PA).  A copy of Rep. Capuano's letter is available at
If the proposed rule is adopted, the free flow of information over the Internet between Americans and their representatives will be significantly curtailed.   Americans who currently use free websites like YouTube to obtain uncensored daily information about congressional policy debates will instead be forced to go to websites “approved” by the House Administration Committee in order to continue getting such information.  This would amount to new government censorship of the Internet, by a panel of federal officials that is neither neutral nor independent. 
House Republicans, led by Reps. Vern Ehlers (R-MI), Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), and Tom Price (R-GA), have expressed their opposition to this attack on Internet freedom and proposed an alternative solution that would allow Members of Congress to continue posting content at sites of their choosing.  I will continue to keep you updated as this situation unfolds.  For further information, please visit the House Republican Leader website or contact Nick Schaper, my Director of New Media Operations, at

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Clay Shirky

Jul 8, 2008, 11:48:13 AM7/8/08
> exactly does the House Administration Committee plan to
> enforce this rule?

Don't make the mistake of assuming an unpoliceable rule is also unenforceable.

They can enforce it the way we enforce parking rules, which is to miss
most violations, and then bring on draconian enforcement of enough
violations to create a chilling effect. This would also allow the
Rules committee to use enforcement as a selectively wielded stick.

As an analogy, despite two decades of open access journals, academics
still stick to closed access ones, even though those journals are
organized to specifically thwart academic goals of sharing knowledge.
The academics do this because the internal needs of the profession
(which journals matter most for tenure etc.) actually matter more to
them than the stated goals of the institution as a whole.

YouTube et al threaten to bring openness to the House, and to
normalize a channel in which franking privileges create no advantage
for incumbents. In a social environment as tight as the House, the
threat of unlikely but serious punishment, for an activity that
Members may not be in a hurry to embrace or defend anyway, will be
enough to make discussion with constituents out in the open an edge


John Wonderlich

Jul 8, 2008, 12:57:54 PM7/8/08
My response on Franking reform:

Member Web Use Reconsidered
    John Wonderlich

    New lines are being drawn about the restrictions Members face when using the Internet.

    House Minority Leader Boehner today released a memo, entitled the "Internet Freedom Alert", criticizing a letter sent by Rep. Capuano to the Chairman of the Committee on House Administration.

    Member Web use restrictions are among the main Open House Project priorities, and one of the chapters of the report is about the restrictions set by the Franking Commission, which operates under the Committee on House Administration. (This chapter was written by David All and Paul Blumenthal.)

    Boehner's letter today rightly sounds the alarm about Capuano's newly proposed Franking commission guidelines. In his letter, Capuano admits that Web use restrictions need to be redesigned, and proposes that acceptable Web sites and uses be compiled by the Committee, and that content from Members, when posted on outside sites, should "meet existing content rules and regulations", and should "not be posted on a website or page where it may appear with commercial or political information." (pdf)

    While reconsidering or reforming these antiquated restrictions is a laudable goal, the proposed guideline reforms are only a half-measure toward modernized engagement online, and don't address the underlying problems with these unnecessary restrictions.

    The Committee on House Administration and its Franking Commission are tasked with making sure taxpayer money isn't spent on commercial or political advertising on the Web. While there is good reason to limit incumbents' advantage to be gained online, Capuano's memo overstates the liability that comes when Members of Congress use popularly accepted communication tools.  Exaggerating the risks online hamstrings Members and staff at exactly the time when they should be boldly engaging with constituents.

    Communicating online involves only negligible cost, which means that the potential advantage given to incumbents, or the potential for a conflict of interest, is only very slight. Imagine a traditional example. No one would impugn the motivations of a Member who grants an interview to a very small newspaper in their district, where perhaps their grandchild is a journalist. Even though such an interview has a distinct financial benefit for the small paper, Members are free to speak with whomever they wish, and can be confrontational, or only pick interviews with sympathetic figures, at their discretion.

    This discretion is important. Members need to be able to communicate freely, and the financial consequences of where their voice is featured are tiny compared to the possible consequences of trying to limit Members' speech.

    Has it ever occurred that a Member gives interviews to only one particular newspaper? I doubt it. That just isn't the way motivations work in a political world.

    If the potential for conflict of interest or political advertising is so low the context of the traditional press, then why are we treating the Internet differently? Is the Internet so unfamiliar, so public, that it should be considered undignified to have a video on the same page as a link that might link to pornography? That worry was reasonable in 1995, but not now.

    People generally understand the potential of digital communications tools. Most services are provided without cost, and are open to public viewing, and, increasingly, public content submission. While this opens the door for disruptive participation, it also provides us with the immense potential of our shared digital connection, with consequences as fundamental as those of the printing press or the telephone.

    If Members can use whatever brand of inkpen, or any brand of paper, or buy whatever shoes they want, they should be given radically expanded freedom to use the Internet, and make the same empowering discoveries that their constituents are. Even if that same pen was once used to scribble a ransom note.

    The Committee on House Administration still has a line to draw, and plays an important function through the Franking Commission in preventing abuse of taxpayer funded resources. The restrictions, however, should reflect a balance between the liability they're meant to avoid, and the potential benefits Congress could realize. The conflict of interest (or undignifiedness), is minimal, at best, and the potential benefits are nothing short of revolutionary.

    Citizens are overcoming their fears about engaging online, and Congress should follow suit.

    Congressional staff working on reforming Franking restrictions should be praised for their efforts, and Republican Leader Boehner should be praised for his bold stance on such reforms.

    Posted: July 8th, 2008 Tags: franking
John Wonderlich

Program Director
The Sunlight Foundation
(202) 742-1520 ext. 234

David All

Jul 8, 2008, 2:42:54 PM7/8/08
Very strong. 

If anyone else blogs about this issue, please ping the list.




Jul 8, 2008, 9:05:01 PM7/8/08
to Open House Project
> If anyone else blogs about this issue, please ping the list.

Done and posted:

John Wonderlich

Jul 9, 2008, 12:47:17 AM7/9/08
another post below (not mine).  (also note John Culberson's reply in the comments.  Very cool that he's engaging in the comments thread on a post criticizing his engagement...)

Politician Using Twitter To Ignite Misleading Partisan Fight Over Politicians Posting To Twitter

from the politics-as-usual dept

Last month, I posted how cool it was that Republican Congressman John Culberson was really using Twitter to communicate with people. It was a great use of the technology. However, today he's been using Twitter to ignite a totally misguided partisan war, pretending (falsely) that Democrats are trying to prevent him from using Twitter. First, he announced on Twitter that "the Dems are trying to censor Congressmen's ability to use Twitter" claiming that "They want to require prior approval of all posts to any public social media/internet/www site by any member of Congress!!!" Fascinating, and troubling, if true, but it's not actually true...

(much more post, available here.)

Culberson's reply available here.

Based on the friendfeed and twitter chatter I'm still seeing at this hour, I expect this to be all over the blogs tomorrow, probably covered from a bunch of different angles.

John Wonderlich

Jul 9, 2008, 12:54:30 AM7/9/08
Sorry for the repeat emails, but I've just found a compilation of blog posts and coverage on friendfeed.

The really interesting part of the story might be the way Rep. Culberson managed to stir up attention through twitter.

Nothing gets attention through social media like hot stories about social media.   :)

David All

Jul 9, 2008, 8:21:26 AM7/9/08
John -

Might this be a good time to re-ignite The Open House Project? It looks like there could be some opportunities with Members of Congress that are paying attention.


Greg Palmer

Jul 9, 2008, 7:30:11 PM7/9/08
This article outlines things pretty accurately, I think.

Loose Tweets Sink Fleets, Congressman

By Jason Lee Miller - Wed, 07/09/2008 - 5:26pm.

Sound, fury, and mailing regulations 2.0

US Representative John Culberson (R-TX) tweeted loudly in the spirit of Paul Revere:

"They want to require prior approval of all posts to any public social media/internet/www site by any member of Congress!!!"

Luckily, Revere didn't have quite the mouthful to warn of the arrival of the Red Coats—he didn't have Twitter, either. Culberson's alarm was rung just hours after he discovered and tweeted about a nefarious Democrat plot to prevent members of the House of Representatives from posting to Web 2.0 citizen media channels like YouTube and Twitter:

"I just learned the Dems are trying to censor Congressmen's ability to use Twitter Qik YouTube Utterz etc - outrageous and I will fight them "

He still had room for "varmints" there at the end and some "green horny toads!" Shame the Texas Congressman doesn't utilize the 140 characters available to him. He does, however, tweet with the frequency of a twelve-thumbed quail in a BlackBerry patch.

Culberson has promised all day to corner those responsible—namely Bobby Brady (okay, "Robert Brady," D-PA), who is chairman of the Congressional Committee on Mailing Standards, and Michael Capuano (D-MA)—and Qik them. His concern stems from a letter Cupuano sent to Brady regarding the Committee on House Administration's and the Franking Commission's approval of official content posted outside the domain.

Maybe Culberson will find out when he Qiks them, since he ignored both TechDirt's Mike Masnick's and Tim O'Reilly's tweeted sleeve tugs (among others), that the letter is actually about loosening current restrictions, which regulate how Congressmen can use mass communication devices from telephones to email. That is, Culberson's upset about an already existing law regarding official content (is a tweet official?), and has pinned the blame for it on rival party members.

Those rival party members did seem to be looking for a way to extend the Committee on House Administration's and the Franking Commission's authority to Congress's use of websites and social media sites. Extending centralized authority would be alarming to any self-respecting Jeffersonian Republican, no doubt.

However, Capuano's goal in his letter, while extending authority into where Culberson must have considered a Wild West for talkative Congressmen (it wasn't), was to make it easier for members of the legislature to communicate to large groups of constituents outside the official government channels. As more in Congress become web-savvy and make use of web video especially, Capuano reports modern communicative possibilities far exceed the capacity of the government website. In short, we just ain't got the bandwidth for what the hipper legislators want to do here. 

But restrictions on Congressional speech? Like it or not, they were there well before, set in place (presumably) as a safeguard against classified, incomplete, inaccurate, or damaging content being released en masse to the public by a US Congressman. Capacity for abuse? Definitely. But, unlike how Culberson seems to feel about himself, one cannot (currently) be simultaneously a legislator and a member of the press, not even the citizen media.
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