Tech & society

The Faux Charge About Congressional Use of Social Media

Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) uses Twitter to communicate with constituents (and other folks). But according to TechDirt, he has been using that potent networking tool to “ignite a totally misguided partisan war, pretending (falsely) that Democrats are trying to prevent him from using Twitter.”

Congressmen are prohibited from “posting official content outside of the domain.” The rules haven’t kept pace with technology (no real surprise here). The last time the rules were changed was July 1998. (Note: Republicans controlled the House from 2001-2007.)

The Bi-Partisan Commission on Congressional Mailing Standards (Franking Commission) governs official constituent communication. It is considering proposals to change the video posting restriction, which would allow posting videos in a channel, for example, on YouTube. Although there is no move to adopt rules for social web sites, Rep. Culberson has charged that the Democrats want to prohibit official Congressional use of social technologies. His charge ran through the Net like … wildfire. Even the Sunshine Foundation is in on the act: Let Our Congress Tweet.

I applaud the use of social media technologies as alternative communication channels with constituents. At the same time, when communications are “official,” there are certain logical and legal requirements, such as maintaining permanent records and avoiding campaign rhetoric while using public equipment. After all, we’re still trying to find missing White House email. If Twitter or Facebook or MySpace are to be official communications channels, we’ll need some way to preserve those electronic records; the alternative is a world of “he said/she said.”

So please, don’t get carried away by forwarding messages that the Democrats are trying to prevent Republicans from using social media as official constituent communications channels. But if you think the rules should be clarified, chime right in with that message. By the way, nothing in the Franking rules prevents the use of these tools for campaigning, which is where most are being used.

And folks, as much as I love Twitter, it doesn’t scale. No Representative with 646,952 members (the average size in 2000) will be able to carry on one-on-one conversations with voting-age constituents.

About the Senate
Documents available at Technosailor suggest that under Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS), the Senate Rules Committee “prohibit[ed] offices from maintaining websites on third party social networking sites.”

About Europe
Given that the courts have granted Viacom the right to access YouTube’s logs, wouldn’t you like to know who gets to see the data records of Congressional video clip views? As the New York Times reported in 2005: “[E]very other Western country has a comprehensive set of national privacy laws and an office of data protection, led by a privacy commissioner. The United States, by contrast, has a patchwork of state and federal laws and agencies responsible for data protection.”

See the 1995 and 2002 legislation passed in Europe: Data Protection Directive 95/46/EC; Directive on Privacy and Electronic Communications 2002/58/EC (pdf). We still have nothing like this; our Congress seems more interested in protecting corporate copyright than individual privacy.

The 233rd Birthday Coming Up
Oh. And the Franking Commission? Bi-partisan: three Democrats, three Republicans. Since November 1775, Congressmen have had “franking” privilege; that is, they can send mail to their constituents for free. No postage stamp required. The Commission governs the use of that privilege.

Why might there be rules on the use of the frank? Because anyone running against an incumbent Representative has to pay the US Post Office for their mailings. That’s why there is a prohibition on mass mailing during the 60 day period prior to an election (USC Title 39).

One more case where “free” (as in “free” services like Twitter or Facebook) is disrupting existing institutions.

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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