The medium is not the message

by on July 18, 2008 · 6 comments

Over on the Open House Project blog, John Wonderlich ponders what would sensible web-use rules for members or Congress look like. As I’ve noted here recently, both the House and Senate are looking to update the types of restrictions they place on how their members may use internet technologies. John writes:

The question now before the Franking Commission is how to update what Pelosi and Capuano have both admitted are “antiquated” restrictions. They have to balance legitimate concerns — decorum, commercialization, and improper taxpayer funded political content — against what all involved parties have recognized as immense potential online. … What really constitutes commercial endorsement? When does conduct become unacceptable or undignified? What role should Congress play in enforcing those questions online? Where do the edges of “official duties” lie anyway? Are we treating the Internet differently than we do traditional media?

It seems to me that the first step is to separate message and medium. House and Senate rules should address what is proper and improper content—that is, they should have rules restricting the use of official resources to produce political or commercial messages or content that is undignified (however they want to define that). In fact, they already have such rules. That sort of content regulation, however, should be completely separate from restrictions on the medium used to transmit the message. As long as a member stays within the content rules, the medium should not matter.

Such an approach would avoid the type of prescriptive rules that have already failed Congress. You could not have predicted Twitter or Qik three years ago, and we can’t predict the new services that will emerge in the future. The House and Senate should therefore steer clear of any rules that are medium-specific.

Unfortunately, the rules that are now being considered by the House Franking Commission would restrict the services members could use to communicate with the public. The recommendations made by Rep. Capuano state in part:

To the maximum extent possible, the official content should not be posted on a website or page where it may appear with commercial or political information or any other information not in compliance with the House’s content guidelines.

He also suggests that the House should “maintain a list of external sites that meet whatever requirements are established[.]” This is not a smart strategy for several reasons.

First, widgets and shareable video allow web users to embed content anywhere they please. This is a feature and not a bug. Unless Congress wants to restrict their members from using any service that allows the public to share and remix their content, I don’t see how they can control where that content ends up. Additionally, content sites like YouTube allow visitors to post comments (and even video responses), and there’s no good way to control what users say in these spaces. Again, this is not a ‘problem’ to be fixed; this is precisely what makes the new media so revolutionary and so attractive for members who want to communicate with their constituencies.

Advertising on Speaker Pelosi's Digg profile

Second, rules must follow social norms if you expect them to be effective. If you have a law that is routinely violated by the public, and there is little stigma attach to the violation, then that’s a pretty good indication that the law is out of step with societal norms and generally held beliefs about what’s right and just. Representatives like John Culberson who live-stream video and twitter from the House floor are presently in violation of the rules. So is Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who addressed the web-use issue recently by writing,

Like many other Members, I have a blog, use YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, Digg, and other new media to communicate with constituents, and I believe they are vital tools toward increasing transparency and accountability.

Not only is there nothing wrong with a member using these services, it’s laudable. There has been no public outcry that Speaker Pelosi’s content on Facebook and Digg is surrounded by advertisements, even political ones. Social norms are such that people understand that having a profile on Facebook or a channel on YouTube does not mean that you endorse any of the ads or the user-created content around your content. So why develop rules that resist these social norms?

Finally, creating a list of approved sites—even if members are not limited to only using those sites—will be problematic. It will imply official endorsement of some commercial services over others, which is precisely what I think the rules are trying to avoid. It would also lead to a chilling effect where a member might want to try a new service but won’t because it’s not on the safe-harbor list. And what sorts of site would make it on such a list anyway? Looking at the proposed rules, it would have to be sanitized versions of social media sites that would not allow for embedding or commenting—e.g. crippling precisely what makes social media social and revolutionary.

So what am I missing? Have standards for content, but allow members to use any communications service they’d like. Don’t want to chance having a Viagra ad next to the video of your speech, don’t post on YouTube. I’d love to hear any critiques of my proposal.

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