No YouTube for Congress

by on July 9, 2008 · 14 comments

How does the old saying go? One person’s spam is another person’s blogging fodder? Such was the case today when a colleague forwarded a house GOP “Internet Freedom Alert” to me. According to the alert, Nancy Pelosi and her wicked ilk mean to ban members of Congress from using YouTube to communicate with their constituencies.

The alert, sent by the office of Rep. John Boehner, informs us that house democrats have dredged up an arcane rule and mean to enforce it—after all, this is “the most ethical Congress ever.” The rule, enforced by the Congressional Franking Commission, disallows links to campaign-related website, political parties, advocacy groups and “any site the primary purpose of which is the conduct of commerce.” This means YouTube, replete with its ring tone ads, links John McCain t-shirts, and ads for Barack Obama commemorative neck ties, is a big Congressional no-no.

Congress ought to live by its own rules, but perhaps this one is worth revisiting. Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) seems to think so as well. He sits on the panel that is reforming the rules governing constituent communication and has quite accurately observed that “Technology moves fast. Congress moves slow.”

While that sentence may not be the most grammatically accurate way of stating the case, the Price is right. The alternative for Congress is hosting its own videos or requesting that commecial sites like YouTube build what Washington Post staff writer Jonathan Weisman calls a “government ghetto.”

The former option—Congress building its own video server—would likely be a disaster. I don’t base this on my inclination to believe that government will fail where commercial enterprise has succeeded, but on my own experience working with House web services. When I was a staffer working for former Congressman Mark Green (R-WI), I witnessed the House’s crack web team first-hand. The old telephone monopolies and current high-level bureaucrats would marvel at the inefficiency and general incompetence of these galactic-level government job leeches. Relying on these folks to get messages from Congressional offices out to the American public would be a huge mistake.

The later option—asking for special non-commercial sections for government videos on otherwise commercial sites—seems to also have its disadvantages. The rule that prohibits linking to commercial sites is presumably in place so that Congressional offices aren’t tempted to give links to commercial sites in exchanges for special favors. But if sites like YouTube build these “government ghettos,” they will be gaining favor within the halls of Congress simply for the fact that they will be one of the few providers of “non-commercial” service to Congress.

The non-commercial rule would also prohibit Congress from using sites like SlideShare or ODEO—not to mention the yet uninvented services that will be rolled-out in the years to come. Increasingly, the web is not a series of discreet pages, but pages within pages, making it hard to discern where content from one publisher ends and content from another publisher begins. Congressional rules need to reflect this reality and accept that if our government wants to be ethical, accountable, and transparent, that it may have to accept little YouTube logos appearing here and there in Congressional websites.

Besides, if we’re to take the rule for how it’s written, YouTube is exempt. To say that YouTube’s “primary purpose” is the “conduct of commerce” is a bit of a stretch. The site still hasn’t turned a profit—in fact, Eric Schmidt has admitted that Google just doesn’t know how to do such a thing. Right now, YouTube’s primary function seems to be hosting goofy videos while losing millions in the process.

This decidely “non-profit” status should make YouTube a bit more palitable for Congress, another large organization good at losing money. At least with YouTube available to Congressional website we can see goofy videos of exactly how its all frittered away.

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