Let Our Congress Tweet. Sign the Petition.

By Timothy M. O'Brien
July 9, 2008
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A few weeks ago, I had the chance to talk with some people who work with the Sunlight Foundation. The Sunlight Foundation is a non-profit, non-partisan entity that is dedicated to the idea of bringing digital transparency to the United States Federal Government. We talked about open source, XML, transparency ... why programmers should care and how programmers can help. In the coming weeks you'll see the results.

Brewing Controversy: Should Congress Twitter?

Today, Sunlight pinged me about an important issue that is related to transparency, technology, and the rules surrounding how a member of Congress can interact with constituents in various online social media and networking sites like Qik, Twitter, and Identi.ca. Long story short, there is a commission - the Franking Commission - whose job is to ensure that members use the internet in a way consistent with house rules ("decorum"). It is currently against the rules for members of the House to Tweet and use YouTube or Qik, but that hasn't stopped a few members from doing just that sometimes from the House floor. Over the past day, the commission has been trying to decide how to clarify or modify those rules, and a controversy has erupted around the level of access members should have to services like Twitter.

Enter John Wonderlich of the Sunlight Foundation

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In the context of this controversy. John Wonderlich of the Sunlight Foundation has written a piece on the Sunlight blog that urges the franking commission to support liberal access to these technologies for members of Congress. He writes:

...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."

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.

You really should give it a good read. He's talking about an issue that the Sunlight Foundation has had on the agenda for a while, getting Congress to formally remove member web restrictions. Sunlight has been working both sides of the aisle to convince the Franking commission to liberalize access. Today, they started a petition... a twitter petition...

...and, you can sign the Petition: LetOurCongressTweet.org

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Because of all this franking controversy, Sunlight is asking people who believe that Congress should be allowed to Twitter to sign a Twitter petition. LetOurCongressTweet.org gives you the details, you can also just sign it...

Congress, change the rules. Talk to us on our social networks. http://LetOurCongressTweet.org Let our Congress Tweet! #LOCT08

The Franking Commission should liberalize congressional access to social networking and social media sites. They should clarify the rules and allow for liberal access. Limiting speech on social networking and media sharing sites will, in effect, limit constituent access to members of Congress. At a time when technology has the both the potential and promise to transform our relationship with government, we should err on the side of liberalizing access to these tools.

I'm reminded of some of the stories I've heard about Brian Lamb (of C-SPAN) trying to convince the Congress to provide video feeds and cameras in the chamber (decades ago). Then as now, there was some resistance to transparency, even the idea of cameras in the Congress was resisted, but I can't imagine living in a country without something like C-SPAN. Even though most don't watch, if Congress is in session, you can usually turn on the TV and see it for yourself. That very idea was once considered revolutionary (almost dangerous by the entrenched interests).

Social media and social networking are going to be pivotal aspects of engaging and empowering the individual. Decades from now, we won't be able to imagine a government unaffected by the real-time input of constituents filtered by the social operating system that will define the culture. It is already happening, in this presidential election cycle participation has ballooned, and conventions are being moved to stadiums. This is much larger than just letting Congress Twitter, this is about letting social networks help to evolve the very concept of governance.

If our government doesn't keep up with the technology of the surrounding culture. It will grow more and more irrelevant and unresponsive over time. In one sense this is about government surviving in a connected age. Dramatic? Yep. True? Yep. I really think that if the government doesn't embrace technology, we'll probably discard it when it falls further behind the cultural context of social computing.

Culberson's Call to Action

It also needs to be said that Wonderlich's post does legitimize some of the alarm that was previously expressed by John Culberson (R-TX) who, yesterday sounded the alarm about the attempt to limit congressional access to Twitter (recursively, he sounded the alarm on Twitter itself). While Culberson may be guilty of turning this into a partisan fight, some of his arguments should resonate with you regardless of party.

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Culberson isn't the only one in the House doing this, he's just the one of the first. And, if you don't share his party, try to ignore some of the partisan sides of his argument. He's in the minority, and he's successfully bringing attention to the issue by defining it as a Republican v. Democrat issue. This is what politicians do. If you look at his Qik channel, you'll see that he really is earnestly trying to be a "real-time representative". Let's not discourage this trend, but let's hope that (similar to Coburn-Obama) we can see some bipartisan support for making sure our government doesn't shut the door on social media in Congress.

Sign the petition on Twitter. Call your Representatives in Congress. Don't just ask them to let members Twitter or Qik or Facebook or whatever. Ask them if they are doing it themselves... if the answer is "no", command them to start. Remember, they work for you.

Note: Before you respond that there was a proposal to create a "managed" YouTube, I'd like to state for the record that I don't think it makes any sense to limit access based on (IMO) out-dated ideas of creating an official, advertising free channel. I agree with Wonderlich, when he writes:

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.

Culberson's Qik Videos

At the risk of being accused of giving a platform to Culberson's partisan rhetoric, I'll leave you with an EMBED from Qik. Today, John Culberson turned the tables on a Fox reporter and filmed the TV crew from FOX. What's interesting about this is how geeked out Culberson is on Twitter, Qik, and his Blackberry. The FOX news guy is clueless about this technology, and, granted, the whole thing has a sloppy feeling to it. But, when you see this you can't help to wish that more members of Congress had a similar knowledge of technology. (Again, I'm not endorsing Culberson, I'm just expressing my wish that more people in Congress knew as much about the internet as Culberson. Remember, not long ago, we had to sit through a hearing about the Internet as a series of "tubes"):

Coincidentally, I'm doing research for a follow-up piece to Shane's interview with Peter Gluck. I helped edit down that audio, and it's a really interesting one. I found more Qik videos of Culberson Covering the Landing of Mars Phoenix from JPL - it's about 40 minutes and it is riveting.

Update (Thu @ Noon Central): The Internet Reacts to Sunlight

There has been something of a groundswell of support for the petition, and there are a number of people blogging about the effort. I've compiled a list of blog reactions:

1. Sunlight and Tweeting

2. Check out the twitscoop on loct08: loct08 on twitscoop

3. TechPresident is covering the issue

4. Mashable calls this a movement

Update (Thu, 3PM Central):

There is a lot of intersting jockeying online for political advantage, and it is no surprise. Right-leaning sites sounding the alarn, vs. Left-leaning sites coloring this the debate as Republicans taking political advantage. The truth is in the middle. Capuano is trying to relax rules, but the solution of a "clean room" video sharing site on YouTube, would definitely stifle innovation and participation. It is always interesting to see partisan dynamics play out. The party in power is always trying to manage expectations and the party not in power is trying to rile up supporters. The basic fact is that members of congress are violating established rules when they tweet or qik. This needs to be clarified immediately, and the solution is not to direct all members to an advert-less YouTube.

It is also interesting to see how the "blogging" press tends to cover a story. They will read a PDF and render a judgement without doing much research, they will twitter a congressman and consider the response a quote for a story without qualifying it as a twitter. I've talked to both sides and I've concluded that Culberson was right to sound the alarm, I regret the fact that he did so in a partisan manner, but he's right on the facts, and he's confirmed it with Capuano directly. The blogging press is a drive-by echo chamber.


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