Should Congress regulate how they can use new media?

While it’s no surprise that each year more Americans turn to the internet to find news about what is happening in Congress, what is surprising is how resistant certain factions in Congress are when it comes to letting Members of Congress communicate with their constituency more freely.

Currently, there is a debate brewing in the House about how the Franking Commission should relax the rules when it comes to communications using outside platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc.

Following a firestorm of debates in the blogosphere last week (including an online petition from the Sunlight Foundation), yesterday’s New York Times had an article highlighted the debate, and its bipartisan response thus far.

The Times’ article made it quite evident that there was support on both sides. But what is truly troubling is the position of Massachusetts Democrat Michael Capuano, Member of the House Franking Commission:

Mr. Capuano wants web sites where lawmakers post videos to be scrubbed of advertising and political messages that could be seen as endorsements.

What’s so troubling about this proposed change, is that it essentially tells a company that if they want to open their services up to members of Congress so they can reach the masses, they’ll have to remove the possibility of generating any profits whatsoever.

If we were to implement Congressman Capuano’s vision on a larger scale, I don’t see how there could be any way that a Member of Congress could reach out to any media source. For example, if a member wanted to write an op-ed, would it have to be in a publication that has no advertising? If it’s re-posted on the publications website, would they have to remove all advertising from that page?

The reality is that no Member of Congress would ever suggest a move this radical when it comes to using traditional media. So why be so restrictive when it comes to integrating new media?

While Congressman Capuano claims that he supports the idea of making Congress more modern, I don’t see how you can do that by limiting uploads to sites that are advertisement free.

If this rule change ever went through, I can guarantee that there would be even more confusion about what members can and cannot use to communicate with their constituency.

Sure, they might remove the ads from a YouTube page, but what about the embed feature? Is it acceptable for a member to upload something to YouTube, and then for others to spread it across the web? What about other features YouTube has like social bookmarking sites (Digg, Reddit, Propeller, etc)? What about Facebook? They all have advertisements, therefore each raise questions that would have to be answered.

Then of course there are the arguments about which services, other than YouTube, a member can upload videos to? There is no way that YouTube competitors will sit idly by while they are being barred from sharing messages created by elected officials, simply because they allow advertising to sustain their business. In reality, they are following the exact same business model as newspapers, magazines and television stations.

I’m sure there are a wide variety of other problems that could develop from maintaining such a restrictive policy on new media, and I urge you to share them below.