House relents on New Media, adopts updated rules for Web video

Congressional use of online video, (an issue that this site has covered since the beginning) finally got over its last hurdle today as the Committee on House Administration adopted new rules allowing use of outside websites by Members. The Committee approved a proposal based on reccomendations made in July by Rep. Vern Ehlers, R-Mich., in a letter to Franking Commission chairman Robert Brady, D-Mass.

From the release:

WASHINGTON ““ The Committee on House Administration adopted new web regulations that will permit Members to use outside websites like YouTube to communicate with constituents.  The new regulations, which are based upon a proposal presented in June by GOP Members of the Committee, represent a vital step to providing new, uncensored channels of communication between Members of Congress and their constituents.
The new web regulations, which were adopted via Committee poll, permit Members to post content on outside websites so long as the content is for “œofficial purposes,” and not personal, commercial or campaign related.

House Minority leader John Boener, R-Ohio issued the following statement:

“œI commend Chairman Brady and Ranking Member Ehlers for their leadership on this important matter.  The Internet is a powerful tool that gives Americans an unprecedented window into the daily actions of their government.  It’s critical for Congress to embrace new technology in all forms in order to more efficiently communicate with their constituents and promote increased openness and transparency in government.

“œThese new guidelines are a step in the right direction for a Congress that has been behind the technological curve for too long.  By encouraging the use of emerging and established new media tools, Congress is sending the message that we want to speak to citizens, and receive feedback, in the most open and accessible manner possible.

“œI’m pleased Chairman Brady and Ranking Member Ehlers were able to work in a bipartisan fashion and steer clear of proposals that could have had a negative effect on congressional transparency and open government.”

I’ll admit, I am more than pleased to see that the CHA has put this issue to bed. I first broke the story in a July 3rd article in Washington Internet Daily, and it quickly exploded into a mini-controversy, hitting CNN, the New York Times, and causing a bit a dustup in the House.

Here are two clips of the interview with Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, that started it all.

In addition, Culberson is one of the co-chairs of the newly created GOP New Media Caucus, along with Rob Wittman, R-Va. and Bob Latta, R-Ohio.

Right now members and staff have indicated that this is a Republican-led effort. Calls to Democratic leadership have not been returned, understandably because new media is probably the last thing on their minds right now.

We will bring you as much news as we can on this topic as Congressional use of new/social media moves into the mainstream.

Don't ask questions, give them answers.

I like the group at Ars Technica. They do some pretty unique things and have a great mix of content on their site. But when it comes to policy coverage, the blog-like style they use sometimes encourages shortcuts or causes a story to miss big details.

For instance, Sunday night, Matthew Lasar wrote a post about the FCC’s consideration of rules governing “embedded ads” (product placement). While he touched on some good points, he missed a few things that you’ve just gotta have if you’re gonna write about telecom policy.

First off, he immediately divides the debate into two sides, a “good versus evil” mentality:

As the filings stream in during the Federal Communications Commission’s proceeding on what to do about embedded advertising, one thing is clear: you are either for a crackdown on the practice or against one. If you are a public health or consumer advocacy group, you belong to the first category. If you speak for the media companies and broadcasters, you are firmly ensconced in the second.

One side sees embedded ads as an intrusive, dishonest, and unhealthy innovation. The other sees product placement as the new foundation of the media’s economic well being. It is really that simple.

I’ve read Mr. Lasar for a long time, but having covered this issue myself, and actually spoken to some of the policymakers and advocates on both sides, I felt his subsequent quotations of written comments without a deeper discussion of the difference between commission authority over broadcasters versus cable content, FCC initiatives to deal with cable pricing and content (so-called a la carte pricing), and the known views of the commissioners themselves left much to be desire, especially when he closed the post like so:

All these commentaries grapple with the complex questions swirling around the product placement regulation issue. Does the FCC have statutory authority to make new rules? Does the First Amendment restrain the agency’s hand? Does the Children’s Television Act already guard children’s TV shows against embedded advertising?

But beyond these concerns, a prominent divide on the issue stands out. Consumer advocates see product placement as a clear and present harm to civil society. Big media sees it as the future.

For one, I believe the job of a reporter or blogger is to attempt to answer the questions. Dig deeper. Find out the why behind the what instead of assuming motives. Most importantly, talk to someone. Both as a solo blogger and during my time at Communications Daily, I always made it a point to talk to sources and experts, not just regurgitate written statements. Granted, I’m in D.C and have been around the industry for a while, but it doesn’t take much effort to get a hold of someone in this town, especially if you’ve been bought by Conde Nast, and your publication has hired a damn fine journalist to run the Ars D.C. operation.

I know FCC issues can be complex, and for an “outsider” they can easily be reduced to black and white. But there is a serious lack of in-depth technology policy coverage on the web, good coverage that exposes the many shades of gray and layers in these issues. There is a real need for it, so If you’re going to do it, do it right. That means more than quoting comments, adding some editorializing and posting it. The job of a good reporter or blogger isn’t just to ask tell your readers what the questions are, it is also to FIND THE ANSWERS, or at least to try, in order to get the truth to those readers. The record in this case is sufficient not only to require background and context, but the issue is important enough that reporting on it should get more than a few cut-and-pastes. Get on the phone and talk to someone who knows more than you do. That’s what I always did, and whenever possible, I still do.

The following is a comment I posted on Ars forums in response to the article. It’s not an attack on anyone, or anyone’s work. What it is (I hope,) is an attempt to fill in the blanks and provide some background as to the questions raised in the article and how some of the issues it raised came to be.

While I appreciate the effort to cover this issue, you’ve missed several important distinctions that significantly impact the debate and readers should consider.

First of all, no one disputes the Commission’s authority over broadcast television, and no one disputes the fact that “embedded advertising” (which is really a fancy word for product placement) must be disclosed. As you already reported, you’ll see the disclosures fly by in ending credits. This is not controversial at all. Rules governing advertising on broadcast television fall under the “public interest” test the FCC must apply to its decision-making process. Product placement has been around for years, but its increasing frequency and the changing advertising market that NAB admits to both demand that the commission re-examine current rules to make sure that broadcasters are satisfying the “public interest” obligation they must meet in order to keep their licenses.

Second, the NPRM would not be making any new rules with respect to children’s programming. What the Commission wants to do is clarify the existing rules to make it clear that embedded advertising is prohibited under the existing ban on advertising inside children’s programming. The requirements of the Children’s Television Act are not in dispute here. The FCC is obligated to make sure their rules carry out the intent of statute, and this means making sure that the rules do not fall out of date with respect to changing technologies.

Whether or not the ban applies to cable programming in addition to broadcast television is part of the larger issue of how far the commission’s authority extends over cable programming. The extent that a channel is a subscription service is an important factor in making this determination (for the same reason that HBO can be racier than TNT). The cable industry could remove any doubt by offering channels a la carte, something NCTA has consistently and strongly opposed, much to the ire of Chairman Martin.

While the FCC has not chosen to heavily regulate cable programming out of (legitimate) First Amendment concerns, a move to further regulate product placement in broadcast television, would surely “trickle down” to the basic cable channels that carry vast amounts of second-run and syndicated broadcast content in addition to original programming.

Where the cable industry in particular has a vested interest in keeping product placement rules the same is they are now in the process of rolling out their new Tru2Way interactive content platform as well as moving to all digital networks. Digital technology will eventually allow much more addressable advertising based on programming choices and other viewing habits in addition to location and time slot. If ordinary product placement must be disclosed more clearly, the industry’s ability to sell ads in interactive programming and games (which could be targeted to children) could be in jeopardy.

The commission has already reached a “broad consensus” on clarifying the existing ban on advertising to children, according to Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein (D). But Chairman Martin has not called for a vote on the issue. Nor has he called for any vote on re-examining rules governing product placement and disclosure.

With respect to the children’s programming ad ban, Commissioner Deborah Tate (R) has been a strong advocate for child safety and protection, but has declined to say publicly whether she supports clarifying the ban on ads in children’s programming. When the House adjourns, her term will expire, leaving an open seat and increasing the likelihood of 2-2 party line votes that would prevent rules from being adopted in absence of a majority.

Framing this debate as “big media versus consumers” oversimplifies what is a combination of far more complex issues that have been out there for years and are an inevitable consequence of the FCC’s legal obligations as well as the constitutional constraints it operates under. And while you’ve based much of the article on the public comments, you don’t include much information on where the Commissioners themselves might stand. Nor do you attempt to provide any background on the subject of FCC’s lack of explicit statutory authority over cable television content (and the a la carte pricing debate that springs from it) or any analysis from industry experts that would allow you to give readers a better view of the issue than just “consumers versus media.”

Web Video Issue Derails in House

A resolution for the House of Representatives to adopt a more relaxed Senate rule on Web video sites was stopped dead in its tracks by House Administration Committee chairman Mike Capuano, D-Mass., during a contentious Thursday hearing.

The proposed resolution, offered by Rep. Vern Ehlers, R-Mich., is similar to positions he articulated in a letter earlier this year during a controversy over members’ use of Qik, Youtube and other Web video sites. The Ehlers resolution would have the House adopt rules passed by the Senate Rules Committee earlier this week, allowing senators more discretion in which services they use while maintaining an “advisory” list. “œIt seems that the Senate has come up with a good resolution,” Ehlers said.

Capuano was furious at what he saw at having his proposal called an “attack on free speech” as well as alleged backroom deal-making by Ehlers and others, shouting “œHonestly, if you want to make a deal, pick up the phone or find me on the floor. This is not the cooperative way to do it.”

It appears unlikely that the House will take action before the November elections. “Further review is required,” Capuano said.