Congress Banning Social Media?

As if to prove Robert Heinlein correct, the House Administration Committee is, apparently with honorable intent, considering effectively banning the use of popular social media sites, including YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook by Members.

Soren Dayton couches this in partisan terms: “In typical fashion, House Democrats are trying to pass rules that stifle debate and require regulation.” In fact, though, it appears that existing rules are being interpreted by some to preclude Members from posting on these sites and the current effort is to address that.

The Franking Commission, created to govern how Congress used their right to mail letters to constituents for free, apparently “frowns on official links to campaign-related Web sites, political parties, advocacy groups and ‘any site the primary purpose of which is the conduct of commerce.'” That’s understandable, if highly problematic in the current communications environment.

Aaron Brazell posts a letter from Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Massachusetts 8th) to HAC Chairman Robert Brady suggesting a workaround, noting for example that the “existing tools available within the House to [post videos] are not user-friendly or efficient, and that in addition, server space withn the House is currently insufficient to meet the growing demand for video.”  He proposes a series of guidelines to solve this problem:

  • Official content posted on an external domain must be clearly identified as produced by a House office for official purposes, and meet existing content rules and regulations;
  • To the maximum extent possible, the official content should not be posted on a website or page where it may appear with commercial or political information or any other information not in compliance with the House’s content guidelines.
  • Any link from a House website to an external site on which the Member video is hosted must contain an exit notice.
  • CHA, the Office of Web Assistance (OWA), or other designated House entity should maintain a list of external sites that meet whatever requirements are established by the CHA

The partisan angle is being pushed especially hard by Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) who, as Mike Masnick puts it, has “been using Twitter to ignite a totally misguided partisan war, pretending (falsely) that Democrats are trying to prevent him from using Twitter.”  Indeed, Culberson’s name, which I must admit I can’t recall previously having heard, appears in virtually every blog post I’ve seen on the subject.

Masnick appears to be right that Capuano is trying to “make it easier to post content on various social media sites.”  But the rules are so hamhanded that they’ll make things harder.  Jesse Stay points out that, “this would rule out any Twitter communication because by law, each Tweet would need to be prepended by a disclaimer, identifying it as being produced by a House office for official purposes and, as Culberson puts it, that will most likely in and of its self exceed 140 characters. Also, it would mean that any Congressman wishing to use a site such as Twitter to share publicly what is going on in Congress with their constituents will have to get prior approval, censorship essentially, before using such a site or technology.”

Mark Safranski also heard from Culberson and found him persuasive, largely because Nancy Pelosi and others are trying to reimpose the so-called Fairness Doctrine. He figures, “The net effect of the regs would be to make it practically impossible for members of Congress to use social media tools to discuss official business or share video of the same with the public while creating a partisan disparity in what little approved messages might be permitted.” Leaving aside the partisan angle, though and we’re still left with a really bad idea.

[O]n the technological merits alone this may be the goddamn dumbest thing I’ve heard of regarding the internet coming out of Congress in a long, long, time. The dinosaurs who are uncomfortable with computers, the unwashed masses being aware of their actions and free political debate want to turn the clock back to the 1970’s. Except during the 1970’s no one would have dared to propose controlling what  a democratically elected member of Congress could say to their constituents. Doesn’t it register in the Beltway that they are talking about public information that already belongs to the people of the United States? Senators and Congressmen should be interacting with citizens more freely, not less; the U.S. Congress needs radical transparency, not greater opacity imposed by the Democratic House leadership to better hide shady dealings.

It’s a brazenly Orwellian and most likely unconstitutional power grab by the Speaker of the House unlike anything dreamed of by any previous speaker – not Sam Rayburn, not Joseph Cannon. Nobody.

Ed Morrissey has a source (i.e., a flack sending out press releases to friendly bloggers) who says that Diane Feinstein is pushing a similar proposal in the Senate that would have “the Senate Rules Committee would become the Internet speech police for everyone in the Senate.”  Ed says this could have all manner of negative and far-reaching consequences.

David All passes along a message from House Minority Leader John Boehner which says, in part,

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.

Interestingly, All contends, “not a single complaint had ever been filed against a Member of Congress for their web-use.”

One presumes that the net outcome of all this attention will be that Members are officially allowed to use social media outlets precisely as they’re already doing and that a handful more people will have heard of John Culberson.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Tlaloc says:

    The Franking Commission, created to govern how Congress used their right to mail letters to constituents for free, apparently “frowns on official links to campaign-related Web sites, political parties, advocacy groups and ‘any site the primary purpose of which is the conduct of commerce.’” That’s understandable, if highly problematic in the current communications environment.

    What they should do then is create a special congressional version of a social network site that is government owned and non-profit. Make it easy to find your congresscritters, read their blogs, send them messages, and follow links to see who they are working with in both house and on what.

    But that’d be useful.

    BY THE WAY THE STUPID “FREINDFEED” BELOW IS REALLY DAMN ANNOYING! When I hit the formatting buttons on the post field the formats are showing up in the friend feed window instead of the correct one.

  2. James Joyner says:

    BY THE WAY THE STUPID “FREINDFEED” BELOW IS REALLY DAMN ANNOYING! When I hit the formatting buttons on the post field the formats are showing up in the friend feed window instead of the correct one.

    It’s gone until I can get it working properly.

  3. Tlaloc says:

    Danke shon! (speaking of multilingual…)

  4. Nick Cowie says:

    What they should do then is create a special congressional version of a social network site that is government owned and non-profit. Make it easy to find your congresscritters, read their blogs, send them messages, and follow links to see who they are working with in both house and on what.

    Except you would have to choose to visit that site. If you local congresscritter was in your friend in facebook/twitter/friendfeed/youtube/flickr/etc you would find out what is going on and they would have a far more effective communication means. Rather than forcing you to visit a special site, use a special service just for them. Which you are only likely to use when seeking specific info or are upset with them.

  5. Ari Herzog says:

    What they should do then is create a special congressional version of a social network site that is government owned and non-profit. Make it easy to find your congresscritters, read their blogs, send them messages, and follow links to see who they are working with in both house and on what.

    I’ve sought such a portal for months. Is there no list somewhere?