- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 31, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Government is notorious for moving slowly, but when it comes to adapting to technology, government’s pace can be downright troublesome.

Consider Capitol Hill efforts to update Watergate-era laws and Internet-usage rules from the 1990s for use in Congress in the 21st century.

Many members of Congress and their staffs routinely participate in Web 2.0 by sharing videos on sites like YouTube, joining Web-link communities like Digg.com and networking on sites like Facebook and LinkedIn.

However, current congressional communication rules do not allow any member to post any official communication (i.e., non-campaign material) on a Web site that is not House.gov or Senate.gov.

This means that every senator or representative who uses Web 2.0 sites to communicate with constituents is in violation of the rules, creating a perfect opportunity for an unscrupulous ethics committee chairman to enforce the rules selectively.

To prevent such an occurrence, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, asked the Franking Commission to update the system. (The Franking Commission is a panel of the House Administration Committee and oversees rules on congressional mail and other communications.) In the process, Mr. McCarthy initiated a widespread discussion that shows just how out of touch many political elites are when it comes to the Web.

When he first asked Rep. Michael E. Capuano, Massachusetts Democrat and commission chairman, if it was permissible for him to post YouTube videos on his official congressional site, Mr. McCarthy was told to go ahead and post - and ignore the outdated rules.

But Mr. McCarthy persisted in his questioning, prompting Mr. Capuano and other House Democrats to start considering an update to the regulations. At the same time, their counterparts in the Senate - led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat - also have been drafting a proposal.

It is encouraging to see this process begin, but the current proposals for new rules take several steps in the wrong direction by arbitrarily treating the Web differently than other media.

The House proposal is especially problematic since it deals only with online video communities. It does not address the permissibility of using other sites like Digg or Facebook, leaving the selective enforcement problem unresolved.

More important, the House proposal - like its Senate counterpart - also would allow members to post only to external sites that have been preapproved by a congressional committee.

While in some sense this is laudable (no one wants to see staffers posting on porn sites, for instance), the approval concept is a bad idea for three reasons.

First is that setting up a vetting committee lets Congress pick winners and losers online. This opens up the potential for corruption for those assigned to decide what sites are to be permitted. A Web site couldn’t bribe its way onto the list?

The second problem with picking approved sites is that it treats the Web differently than other media where no such restrictions are in place. If a senator wants to write an op-ed in a newspaper, he/she does not need to make sure the paper is vetted by congressional committees. The Web ought to be no different.

The third reason why Congress shouldn’t be deciding what sites are appropriate is that technology moves too fast for government. Today’s decisions as to what should be allowed are likely to be obsolete in a year. Why should taxpayers have to waste money on continually revising what sites are appropriate?

Besides its restrictions on sites, the House proposal has other problems, such as not allowing official videos on sites where they would appear next to commercial or partisan content. Again, print and broadcast media are not subjected to such restrictions.

Mr. McCarthy and other Republicans on the Franking Commission are calling for broader rules that would treat the Internet more like other media. Their colleagues on the other side of the aisle would do well to heed their advice.

In a medium in which the cost of communication is nearly zero, snail-mail groupthink has no place.

  • Matthew Sheffield is a Web consultant and creator of NewsBusters.org. E-mail: msheffield.times@gmail.com.
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