Member Web Sites Stuck in the Past

Posting YouTube Videos, Flickr Photos Often Against Chambers’ Rules

Posted December 5, 2007 at 6:44pm

Engaging constituents has never been so easy. Every day, more Members add YouTube videos of their stirring speeches, links to their personal Facebook accounts or Flickr gallery photos to their Congressional Web site.

What many of them don’t know is that some of these additions are against House and Senate rules.

Regulations prohibit content that can be construed as an advertisement or as purely personal information, such as links to fundraisers or support for partisan causes. Now, the new phenomenon of social networking sites — and the increasing use of them by Members — is testing the application of such rules in a multimedia world.

House and Senate officials say several Members are not in compliance, though none apparently have been disciplined. It’s time, they say, to update the rules to match the technology.

The House Administration Committee has been drafting possible changes for months, as has the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.

“The Internet increasingly has become a more effective means of communication,” said Salley Collins, spokeswoman for House Administration ranking member Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.).

“Technology is continually evolving. Therefore, the rules themselves need to evolve so Members can utilize technology to the fullest,” Collins added.

It’s only been in the past few years that Congress has begun to fully embrace the Internet for constituent services. Members now blog, staffers research online and everyone uses e-mail far more than traditional snail mail.

With the Internet come ways to transform static Member Web sites into interactive locations, with videos, sound bites and blogs. Members now include videos of themselves on the nightly news or links to their detailed, and sometimes personal, MySpace profiles.

The problem comes when Members lift that multimedia from outside sites and put it on their official government page, inadvertently including an embedded advertisement or a link to a page full of partisan political leanings.

But there aren’t any rules to show them the way — a fact discovered by developer Ted Clark when he was designing the Web site of Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), a member of the House Administration Committee.

So in May, Clark began working with the committee to develop regulations that would take into account the need for Members to use outside sites. The restrictions date back to a time when there was no YouTube and no need for large amounts of storage space.

As currently written, Members are essentially confined to government resources, meaning they have to store videos and photos on approved servers. That way, the government avoids endorsing a company or product.

“That’s been the challenge with YouTube: You can’t control what ads pop up,” said Kyle Anderson, spokesman for House Administration Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.). “We’ve seen some sites where there are links to a Member’s video and a political ad will pop up.”

Now that Members want to instantly post large videos or keep extensive photo albums, outside free services are really the only option, Clark said. Anything else is unnecessarily costly and time-consuming.

“People want to be able to do things easily and fast and at a low cost when it requires development and money and time to simply work around” outdated rules, said Clark, who has been providing computing services to Members for years as co-owner of the Great Falls, Va.-based IT company THEO.

Staffers in Rep. Ed Markey’s (D-Mass.) office faced the problem this past spring when renovating the Web site to include “Markey TV,” a one-stop shop for videos of Markey’s various speeches. In the end, spokeswoman Jessica Schafer went to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) office and got the go-ahead to embed YouTube videos on the site. There are no advertisements in the video itself, but the familiar YouTube logo never leaves the screen.

“It does seem that the rules haven’t caught up to modern technology yet,” Schafer said. “A lot of people are doing the best they can and any effort to try to give guidance is welcome.”

Like Markey, many Members use YouTube videos that play directly from their Web site. But others directly link to their YouTube profile without the required message informing visitors that they are leaving a government Web site. Once visitors make the move, they might see political advertisements and links to fundraising efforts — references the House and Senate do not want associated with official government Web sites.

To address this problem, House and Senate officials have been in talks not only with Members but companies like YouTube and Facebook. Proposed rule changes would allow Members to use such outside hosts as long as no advertisements are included.

“What we’re trying to do is update regulations that carefully lay out how things can be done,” Howard Gantman, spokesman for Senate Rules and Administration Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), said. “We’re not interested in keeping people out of the modern Internet era.”

The rules hopefully will be changed as soon as possible, but no timeline has been set, according to both Anderson and Gantman. In the meantime, Members who want to play it safe are using an approved server or hosting files themselves. But neither of these options provide the unlimited and free space of other commercial sites.

“Over the past 24 months, sites have popped up like crazy that offer opportunities to link to video,” Anderson said. “It’s something that clearly we have to embrace.”