Member Web Use Reconsidered


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.