A Congressman ignites a netstorm about Twitter

Congressman John Culberson (R-Texas) has ignited a small storm on the Internet.  He tells a horrifying story of incompetence, ignorance of modern tech, and authoritarian tendencies.  Too bad it probably is not true, at least not as describes it.  Here are the first two volleys; more to come on Wednesday.  Hat tip on this to Zenpundit; see his comments for more analysis on this!  

See the updates at the end, esp the devastating reply by the Representative Capuano.

Quoting from his website:  Democrats Seek to Quell Free Speech  (8 July 2008)

“No matter who is in charge, this intolerable censorship of Congress’ right to communicate with We The People, it must be stopped.”

Today House Republican Leader John Boehner issued a statement indicating that Democrats are seeking to quash the right of Members of Congress to have free speech. According to the statement, the Democrats are looking at restricting Member content on websites outside the house.gov domain. Websites such as Youtube and other social networks would have to comply with government regulations before Members of Congress could post content on them. To view the letter, which lays out the Democrats’ proposals, click here.

… Congressman Culberson is leading a campaign on Twitter.com as we speak. To join him in the cause to keep open internet communication, google twitter.com, sign up for a free account, and search ‘johnculberson.’ He is available through instant messaging format to answer your questions.

“They are trying to ban my Twitters & every [web communication] from all Congressmen unless each communication has been preapproved/edited/censored.”

{I cannot find the statement from House Minority Leader Boehner.} 

Sounds bad.  Really bad.  Probably too bad to be true.  A quick search and we have this, which paints a different picture — one more easily believed:

Politician Using Twitter To Ignite Misleading Partisan Fight Over Politicians Posting To Twitter“, Mike Masnick, Techdirt (8 July 2008) – Opening:

Last month, I posted how cool it was that Republican Congressman John Culberson was really using Twitter to communicate with people. It was a great use of the technology. However, today he’s been using Twitter to ignite a totally misguided partisan war, pretending (falsely) that Democrats are trying to prevent him from using Twitter. First, he announced on Twitter that “the Dems are trying to censor Congressmen’s ability to use Twitter” claiming that “They want to require prior approval of all posts to any public social media/internet/www site by any member of Congress!!!”  Fascinating, and troubling, if true, but it’s not actually true.

The actual issue is one that we discussed a few months back. Existing House rules actually forbid members of Congress from posting “official communications” on other sites. This was first noticed by a first-term Congressman who was worriedthat posting videos on YouTube violated this rule. Other Congressional Reps told him to not worry about it as everyoneignored that rule, and no one would get in trouble for using various social media sites such as YouTube. However, that Congressman pushed forward, and eventually got Congress to act. Of course, rather than fixing the real problem (preventing Reps from posting on social media sites), they simply asked YouTube to allow Reps to post videos in a “non-commercial manner.” YouTube agreed, and that was that.

However, the existing rulesstill stood. Culberson’s complaint stems for a letter (pdf) sent by Democratic Rep. Michael Capuano, suggesting that the rules actually be changed to be loosened to deal with this situation and make it easierto post content on various social media sites. Culberson, however, bizarrely claims that this is the Democrats trying to limit what he can say on Twitter. But that’s actually not at all what the letter states. The problem isn’t this letter, but the existing rules that are already in place. In fact, based on the letter, it would appear that this would make it possible for Congressional Reps to Twitter, so long as their bio made it clear they were Reps.

A bunch of people tried to understand this, and even I asked him to clarify why the problem was with this new letter, as opposed to the existing rules. His response did not address the question at all — but rather was the identical response he sent to dozens of people who questioned his claims. . …

Update #1

Cross-post of a comment by Jeremy Young from the interesting discussion at Zenpundit:

As I read the Capuano letter, it says that, first of all, the only thing that’s being discussed is whether Congresspeople can post official communications to non-House-controlled web programs. That is, they can’t have such communications be produced by their House office – which is actually a good thing, since it means Congresspeople can’t use federally-paid staffers to create what’s essentially campaign material. They can still do whatever they want as private citizens, campaign committees, PACs, 527s, or any other entities separate from their Congressional offices.

Second, the policy that says they can’t post these things is already on the books – but many members of Congress aren’t following it with regard to videos, because it’s much easier to post a video on YouTube and then embed it on your House website than it is to go through what’s apparently a complicated process on the House server. As a result, Capuano’s committee is suggesting a rules change that would allow YouTube embedding, but would impose a couple of commonsense regulations on it: the embedding site would have to be on a list of approved sites, and the video would have to include information clearly identifying it as created by a Congressional office.

Entirely reasonable and completely different from the noise Culberson is spewing.

I’ll say again – this policy is NOT going to change what Culberson can or cannot post on your blog or any other blog. It ONLY affects what he can post in an OFFICIAL capacity, which is entirely right and proper given that posting on blogs in an official capacity provides an unfair campaign advantage.

As an attorney, Culberson must know that what he’s saying about this letter is absolutely untrue. His actions are reprehensible on this matter, as I’ve come to expect of him (he’s my girlfriend’s Congressman, so I’ve been following him for a bit). Zen, sad to see you carrying water for this guy.

Update #2

press release by the author of the letter, Representative Mike Capuano (D – Mass) — hat tip again to Zenpundit:

I am compelled to respond to the laughably inaccurate assertions being spread by some Republicans in Congress over the Franking Commission’s recent efforts to update rules governing the posting of videos on outside websites.

… Of course we all realize that communication methods have changed and are changing every day. At the first meeting of the Franking Commission I chaired we had an enjoyable, bipartisan, and open discussion about where to start updating these antiquated rules. Although I would prefer we had continued to move forward in a deliberative and cooperative manner, apparently some members of Congress feel otherwise.

First, the ONLY item we seek to address is LOOSENING existing rules to allow Members to post videos as a first step toward making the rules meet our constituents’ expectations regarding how they communicate with us in the 21st century. This was completely ignored during the years that Republicans controlled Congress while the internet grew exponentially. It is currently against House rules to post video on any site with commercial or political advertising or to use taxpayer-funded resources to post outside of the House.gov domain.

We are not currently seeking to address anything other than video – not blog postings, online chats or any other written form of communication anywhere on the internet. Any assertion to the contrary is a lie. Perhaps the people spreading those lies should take some time to actually read the letter I wrote, which is attached below.

… NO ONE is suggesting changes to the rules regarding content of messages or what Members can post and any assertion to the contrary is inaccurate. My letter specifically and clearly states that in the fourth paragraph.

It should be noted that the Franking Commission began reviewing this specific issue when a Republican Member requested the rules be updated so that videos could be posted on outside sites. This Member originally applauded our efforts as “a step in the right direction”.

… I hope this clarifies the issue for anyone following this temper tantrum by some of my colleagues. Thank you for reading this and for caring about the House of Representatives and how every American can be best engaged in our deliberations.

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

Other posts about the Internet: does it make us smarter or dumber?

  1. Cable Cut Fever grips the conspiracy-hungry fringes of the web (7 February 2008)
  2. Resolution of the Great Submarine Cable Crisis — and some lessons learned (8 February 2008)
  3. What do blogs do for America? (26 February)
  4. The oddity of reports about the Iraq War (13 March 2008)
  5. Euphoria about the Bakken Formation (10 April 2008)
  6. The Internet makes us dumber: the Bakken euphoria, a case study (15 April 2008)
  7. Does reading Debkafile make us smarter, or dumber?  (15 June 2008)

8 thoughts on “A Congressman ignites a netstorm about Twitter

  1. This is a good blog post about this phenomenon from a prominent left wing activist. It is from before the events you posted about.

    Congress Is Full of Smart People Restricted into Idiocy on the Web“, Matt Stoler, Open Left, 31 March 2008. Excerpt:

    “The Franking Commission is a kafka-esque agency that tends to want to see all communication before approving it, which is precisely the opposite of the web. There are lots of interesting problems here but basically the situation is a mess and prevents members from communicating on forums, over video, and on many sites across the internet. It’s as if someone sat down and said: “Let’s create the most powerful and important set of public spaces imaginable, and then make sure members and Senators can’t use them.””

  2. FM,

    I’ve read Capuano’s letter. IMHO, Mr. Masnick of Techdirt misinterpreted the Franking Committee chairman’s letter — it does not seek to “loosen” the rules, but rather to reinforce them by ensuring that Members post ONLY to “qualifying external sites”.

    My concern (as noted in http://oz.deichman.net/2008/07/house-of-representatives-v-web-20.html ) is that the arcane and onerous rules of the House will inhibit Members’ abilities to communicate directly with their constituents. I have told my Congressman that I do not want the Franking Committee nor the Office of Web Assistance between his office and my home.

    sf/ s
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    Fabius Maximus replies: We will see how this plays out, as over the next few days everyone explains their positions.

  3. Update: cross-post of a comment by Jeremy Young from the interesting discussion at Zenpundit:

    “As I read the Capuano letter, it says that, first of all, the only thing that’s being discussed is whether Congresspeople can post official communications to non-House-controlled web programs. That is, they can’t have such communications be produced by their House office – which is actually a good thing, since it means Congresspeople can’t use federally-paid staffers to create what’s essentially campaign material. They can still do whatever they want as private citizens, campaign committees, PACs, 527s, or any other entities separate from their Congressional offices.

    “Second, the policy that says they can’t post these things is already on the books – but many members of Congress aren’t following it with regard to videos, because it’s much easier to post a video on YouTube and then embed it on your House website than it is to go through what’s apparently a complicated process on the House server. As a result, Capuano’s committee is suggesting a rules change that would allow YouTube embedding, but would impose a couple of commonsense regulations on it: the embedding site would have to be on a list of approved sites, and the video would have to include information clearly identifying it as created by a Congressional office.

    “Entirely reasonable and completely different from the noise Culberson is spewing.

    “I’ll say again – this policy is NOT going to change what Culberson can or cannot post on your blog or any other blog. It ONLY affects what he can post in an OFFICIAL capacity, which is entirely right and proper given that posting on blogs in an official capacity provides an unfair campaign advantage.

    “As an attorney, Culberson must know that what he’s saying about this letter is absolutely untrue. His actions are reprehensible on this matter, as I’ve come to expect of him (he’s my girlfriend’s Congressman, so I’ve been following him for a bit). Zen, sad to see you carrying water for this guy.”

  4. Update #2: a devastating press release by the author of the letter, Representative Mike Capuano (D – Mass) — hat tip again to Zenpundit.

    “I am compelled to respond to the laughably inaccurate assertions being spread by some Republicans in Congress over the Franking Commission’s recent efforts to update rules governing the posting of videos on outside websites.

    “… Of course we all realize that communication methods have changed and are changing every day. At the first meeting of the Franking Commission I chaired we had an enjoyable, bipartisan, and open discussion about where to start updating these antiquated rules. Although I would prefer we had continued to move forward in a deliberative and cooperative manner, apparently some members of Congress feel otherwise.

    “First, the ONLY item we seek to address is LOOSENING existing rules to allow Members to post videos as a first step toward making the rules meet our constituents’ expectations regarding how they communicate with us in the 21st century. This was completely ignored during the years that Republicans controlled Congress while the internet grew exponentially. It is currently against House rules to post video on any site with commercial or political advertising or to use taxpayer-funded resources to post outside of the House.gov domain.

    “We are not currently seeking to address anything other than video – not blog postings, online chats or any other written form of communication anywhere on the internet. Any assertion to the contrary is a lie. Perhaps the people spreading those lies should take some time to actually read the letter I wrote, which is attached below.

    “… NO ONE is suggesting changes to the rules regarding content of messages or what Members can post and any assertion to the contrary is inaccurate. My letter specifically and clearly states that in the fourth paragraph.

    “It should be noted that the Franking Commission began reviewing this specific issue when a Republican Member requested the rules be updated so that videos could be posted on outside sites. This Member originally applauded our efforts as “a step in the right direction”.

    “… I hope this clarifies the issue for anyone following this temper tantrum by some of my colleagues. Thank you for reading this and for caring about the House of Representatives and how every American can be best engaged in our deliberations.”

  5. Posted a comment at ZenPundit linking the 2007 Republican Franking Reference Guide, in which GOP guidelines state that any hyperlink in an email would require that linked sites be submitted to the Franking Commission for review. So if Rep. Culberson sent out an email and linked his Twitter account or a YouTube account or Facebook or whatever, then by the GOP accepted view of the Franking Commission, those sites would need to be submitted for review!

    There is a lot of knee-jerk reaction concerning Capuano’s letter. Where is the outcry over the GOP guidelines? Why indeed would the official GOP House site link their Franking guidelines so prominently unless they were serious about following those rules, already? I ask that last, because much has been made of the fact that 1) “no one follows those rules now” (to paraphrase) 2) “and Capuano wants to make sure people follow such rules — BAD”.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: That is an interesting observation.

    The history here seems complex, and the topic long-overdue for review. However, during an election is not a good time to discuss such things. Based on the available evidence, I consider Representative Culberson’s behavior in this matter overwrought, procedurally inappropriate, and in general a disgrace to the Republican Party.

  6. Update: Here are some interesting articles. Hat tip to Zenpundit.

    Speaker Pelosi to Leader Boehner on Proposed Franking Changes“, from her website, 10 July 2008 — Excerpt:

    “We share the goal of modernizing the antiquated franking regulations to address the rapidly changing realities of communications in the internet age. 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.

    “I can assure you that it is not the intention, nor will it be the result, of the final regulations to stifle, censor, or deprive Members of communicating effectively and in real-time with their constituents. I am confident that the Committee on House Administration will develop these final rules on a bipartisan basis, recognizing that we have a responsibility to ensure that taxpayer dollars are not used for political or commercial purposes.”

    Excellent backgounder: “Democrat Michael Capuano Tries to Stop Members of Congress from Using the Internet“, Matt Stoller, 11 July 2008 — Excerpt:

    “So Pelosi is good on this stuff, as she should be. She has an exceptionally talented New Media staff who can do great work because there are no Franking Restrictions on leadership offices. The right is largely correct on the substance of their claims, though they are making some partisan accusations that aren’t grounded in a real understanding the problem. Soren Dayton at the Next Right asserts that Pelosi is violating the rules through her use of social media, because he didn’t know that leadership offices aren’t subjected to the rules.

    “What is actually going on is that Pelosi’s excellent use of blogging, YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, and Digg is unwittingly providing an extremely successful pilot for how members and committees can and should use the web to interact. ”

    Zenpundit’s take on the above material (sensible, as usual!):

    “I had not realized that either and I thank Matt Stoller for the information in his post. If Speaker Nancy Pelosi uses her considerable authority to push through better, common sense, rules for the House to allow rank and file members to have the online presence that she has created, I’ll be more than happy to retract my previous remarks and apologize.”

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