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Web 2.0 Content - A Proposal to amend the house franking rules

by Ken Ward, on July 08, 2008

Posting content on Web services such as YouTube is technically a violation of the House Franking rules, but the practice is not currently regulated and violations are not reprimanded. Earlier this spring, however, the Franking Commission began to discuss the possibility of adopting new rules or changing existing rules regarding Congressional offices use of the Web for constituent communications, specifically as it applies to video hosting Web sites like YouTube.

Web video seems to be the catalyst for this discussion because of the infrastructure requirements to host and stream video online. Fireside21 and others have “compliant” video services, but we also recommend that our clients use YouTube as a content delivery network: posting a video clip to YouTube is very similar to sending a press release out over a wire service.

While I am happy to see discussion on this particular topic, it is discouraging to see that the dialogue has almost exclusively focused on video. Just this week the discussion has expanded to include how changes to these policies would also impact Member usage of services like Twitter.

Considering these additional implications opens up a debate whose resolution will have much broader consequences on the way that Americans can interact with their elected officials over the Internet. What the discussion ultimately boils down to is that ALL of the regulations governing Members’ activity online ”ñ including both their web sites and email newsletters - are derived from rules created for franked mail (historically, “franked” mail refers to physical mailings that are designed, printed and mailed at the taxpayer’s expense).

MEMBER DISCUSSION

This debate and the recommendations offered by the Members of the House Administration Committee has elicited a number of different opinions from Hill watchers.

On June 24th, Congressman Michael Capuano (who Chairs the Congressional Commission on Mailing Standards - otherwise known as the "Franking Commission") sent this letter to House Administration Chairman Robert Brady. The letter endorses the effort to:

...establish designated House "channels" on external sites.

This is a misguided approach in that it favors services that customize their interface to comply with the House. In many ways, this is endorsing certain applications (which is a House no-no) and is an ineffective approach to finding and using new tools to communicate with constituents.

Quickly responding the very next day, Reps. Kevin McCarthy, Vernon Ehlers and Thomas Price (minority members of the Committee) sent their own letter to the Chairman. The McCarthy letter suggests updating:

...guidelines governing the use of both existing and emerging internet-based communications tools so that Members can properly utilize them within the rules. It is imperative that these regulations be specifically written to set basic guidelines to cover both current and future services and technologies.

Yesterday, the Office of the Republican Leader sounded the alarm and set the interwebs ablaze.

A LITTLE PERSPECTIVE

Today, Roll Call's Emily Yehle succinctly contrasts these proposals:

Two proposals took up much of their time: Either approve each external Web site separately or tweak the franking guidelines for the Internet age. The commission recently recommended the former.

The difference between the two choices may seem slight, but they could produce two very different results.

John Wonderlich at Sunlight weighs in that the Capuano proposal does not "address the underlying problems with these unnecessary restrictions." He goes on to say:

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.

David All, one of the co-authors of the the non-partisan "Open House Project" chapter on Franking restrictions blogs at TechRepublican:

this Rule shows a clear misunderstanding of the access which the Internet provides to constituents and Members of Congress to have a very real, open, level and honest relationship at a minimal/if any cost to the American taxpayer.

A COMPREHENSIVE PROPOSAL

The debate that is summarized above raises some serious questions about how Congress will evolve with the changing nature of communication and media. As a consumer of content on the Web, TV, through email and other media, I still feel that these suggested revisions are outdated in their perspective on Congressional use of online communications. Members actively implement strategies to produce TV and print news coverage, so why should the Internet be any different?

The House of Representatives shouldn't even bother asserting that the content that offices upload to open and free sites like YouTube is published by a "House office for official purposes." The Internet is the great equalizer of modern society: blogs and social networking communities have proven the "power of the crowd" in vetting. There is so much content available on the Web, yet the Internet’s preference for pulling over pushing content still allows consumers to pick and choose what content they browse and to form their own conclusions about the validity of that content.

While the McCarthy approach is on the right track, it doesn’t goes far enough in recognizing the inherent differences between traditional franked communications and the evolving world of Internet communications and falls short of a call to fundamentally revise the rules. Regarding Congressional use of the Internet, the letter states:

Members may use technologies, web site and services (paid or unpaid) to communicate with their constituents via text, video, or audio so long as the content posted by the Member complies with House rules and Franking content regulations. Members may use free communications and networking services so long as those services are available on the same terms and conditions to others.

That's good stuff, but again, all of these regulations are derived from the rules originally designed to oversee the use of taxpayer dollars for letters and postcards Ӗ forms of print communication that are vastly different from the interactive nature of todays Web 2.0 tools.

The frank is indeed a tremendous advantage for incumbent Members. The power of sending letters and postcards to every voter is immeasurable - and the cost is significant. Members started using email to communicate with constituents in a similar manner in terms of message and reach, but with an outlet that comes with little to no cost and offers vastly greater efficiency. Since offices adopted the use of email as a tactic employed in the same way as franked letters, the natural conclusion was to require Members’ email to satisfy the same mass-mailing regulations that govern the more traditional forms of constituent communication.

However, it is becoming increasingly obvious that this initial conclusion was perhaps misguided and is skewing the current debate of web services such as YouTube. Many of the regulations governing franked mail Ӗ including stipulations about the number of square inches of coverage, pages of text and other verbiage Ӗ simply do not apply to email. Nonetheless, Members have to abide by them. Just last week, for example, we had to change an email newsletter for a client simply because it had too many pictures of the Member. In the past, we've had to modify a web site landing page linked in an email newsletter for the same reason.

With the exception of rules established to prohibit "unsolicited" communication during black-outs (similar to franked black-outs), these rules should simply be removed as applied to email communications.

Instead of relying on the current version of the Member Handbook to govern standards for web sites, emails, third-party web services and other online content, the Franking Commision needs to revise their guidelines in a way that accounts for the different format of these media and to recognize that none of these tools provide an unfair advantage to an incumbent.

Members can Ӗ and should - continue to seek new and innovative ways of using the Internet to aid them in achieving their primary focus of representing their constituents. Email newsletters, YouTube, Twitter and other Web services all allow offices to communicate more efficiently with constituents. Furthermore, most of these services provide for improved communications that allow for a two-way dialogue.

While limiting political activity is appropriate when using an official platform to communicate, Congress should adapt to the changing media environment and recognize the importance of online communication as an innovative tool that adds new value to the democratic process. The McCarthy recommendations are on the right track to establishing the rules of decorum, but do not quite go far enough!

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