Open good, closed bad.
This maxim coined in the early Internet era should guide the debate on the appropriate use of Web 2.0 and social media sites in Congress that's erupted in the last 48 hours. Unfortunately, those on the left who have traditionally advocated for openness online have decided to circle the wagons for the inadequate rules proposed by franking chair Rep. Mike Capuano, while attacking social media impresario Rep. John Culberson. Others like the Sunlight Foundation, who have taken an appreciably strong position, pin the blame amorphously on "Congress" and give cover to Speaker Pelosi as she tries to wriggle out from under Capuano's idiocy. In the process, they forget which side is fighting for openness and which side is fighting to codify an archaic, semi-closed system.
While "Let Our Congress Tweet" is an appropriate and necessary sentiment, it's time for Sunlight and others who care about this issue to specifically endorse the principles set forth by Republican Reps. Kevin McCarthy, Vern Ehlers, and Tom Price, while rejecting Rep. Capuano's misplaced war on "commercialism" and picking of winners in the Web 2.0 space through a list of approved sites members could use.
Boiled down, the McCarthy-Ehlers-Price proposal would:
- Encourage, but not require sites like YouTube to set up commercial-free areas for members of Congress. While web behemoths like YouTube can easily accomodate this request, what about niche sites like Twitter, FriendFeed, Qik, or Utterz? As I'll explain below, a Congressional mandate would also be a taking of private property.
- Allow members to post to any site they want, with broad, common-sense guidelines for content. So you still can't post campaign stuff no matter which site you're on -- which is the primary impetus behind these rules.
- No "approved" site list -- e.g. you can post to YouTube but not Blip.tv, or Twitter but not FriendFeed. Government is bad at picking winners, but they'd be absolutely horrible at keeping up with the dizzying pace of Web 2.0 startups, where the landscape changes almost daily.
Faced with the realities of an ever-changing and dynamic Web, Capuano keeps rolling out this "commercialism" trope, suggesting there is a legitimate interest in keeping Congressional content off of sites with any advertising. Sorry, but that train has already left the station. But moreover, members of Congress, like the broader online community, has already voted with its feet, choosing highly commercialized sites like YouTube over stale government-approved standards. What's more, constitutents like it when they can easily find and embed government content on sites they use everyday. Both sides are being well served by a hands off approach. So what exactly is the problem here?
And the Republican plan offers a reasonable standard -- encourage but not require commercial-free areas of social sites. Requiring it would create some clear property rights issues. The terms of service on most Web 2.0 sites state that once uploaded, your content is owned by the site -- doesn't matter if you're the President of the United States or doing basement videography. That site has the right to monetize that content (which they own) as they see fit. To prevent them from doing so is a taking of private property.
Bottom line: any hope of keeping Congressional content away from advertising on third party sites defies common sense, especially when that content will invariably be embedded and mashed up.
Why not work backwards from the things the public would actually find jarring and offensive about the use of these tools in Congress -- rather than Rep. Capuano's bizarre desire to socialize the Internet? There are two things that any common sense observer would say are out-of-bounds for a member of Congress:
- The display of any paid advertising on a .gov site. The means no rollover, pre-roll, or post-roll on videos embedded on an official website. Seems pretty easy not to run afoul, as political videos receive this type of advertising on YouTube. But I see no problem, per se, with these appearing in a House member's channel on YouTube.com. It is YouTube's property after all. The White House doesn't own the rights to an Oval Office address, and networks can sell ads against it.
- The distribution of campaign messages in any official venue, be it on a House member's official website, their Twitter account, YouTube, etc. Again, pretty simple, totally self-policing, and an extension of the common-sense rules of today.
Can you think of anything else? I can't.
Would Sunlight and other transparency advocates be in favor of open, "network neutral" standards such as those embraced McCarthy et al.? Or will they try and muddy the waters between the current Republican and Democratic plans, when one is clearly better from an openness, transparency, and public interest standpoint?
(As hinted in the last paragraph, I find it particularly hilarious that the techno-left circles the wagons for Capuano when it is so vocally in favor of net neutrality. Isn't net neutrality all about not discriminating between different online platforms? And isn't this exactly what Capuano's plan would do?)