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Congress wades through 'tweets'

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  • Web sites like Facebook, MySpace and You Tube are "must have" political tools
  • Lawmakers are now grappling with how to regulate interactions with constituents
  • Word spread last week regulation of congressional use of Twitter may be coming
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By Martina Stewart
CNN
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Forget the stamps, I will text you. That's what a handful of congressmen seeking to communicate with voters in real time are telling constituents.

Rep. John Culberson is part of a new effort to reach constituents by using services such as Twitter.com.

But lawmakers are now grappling with how to regulate new digital communication methods in light of long-standing rules on congressional interaction with constituents.

Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, is at the forefront of a new effort to reach constituents by using services such as Twitter.com, Qik.com, and Utterz.com. Twitter is a micro-blogging service that allows users to publish short text messages known as "tweets." Qik is an online publishing service that streams video live from cell phones to the Internet. Utterz is an online mobile messaging service capable of video, audio and text transmission commonly referred to as "utters."

"The single-minded goal needs to be to shine sunlight in every dark corner of the Congress, to make the Congress and the government as transparent as humanly possible," Culberson said in a telephone interview with CNN late last week. "Someone can't steal money from you in broad daylight ... There's a lot of people in Congress that want to put their hand in your pocket."

Right now, the House Franking Commission -- the internal committee charged with developing rules governing the use of taxpayer funds to pay for constituent communications -- is in the process of updating regulations originally conceived to govern sending postal mail in order to account communicating over the Internet. Already, rules do exist that cover official Web sites and e-mails.

Web sites such as Facebook, MySpace and YouTube are already "must have" tools for political campaigns and Leonard Steinhorn, professor of communications at American University, notes that "new media have become the town square of our political culture."

"They're the bulletin board," he said. "They're the speaker's corner. They're the meeting hall."

Steinhorn added, "So much of what we do culturally, politically, and socially is in a virtual community rather than a tangible one."

Word quickly spread last week via Twitter.com that regulation of congressional use of the site might be coming. It prompted the Sunlight Foundation, a non-partisan organization advocating for greater use of the Internet in order to make information about the federal government more available to the public, set up a Web site as well as a Twitter-based petition.

House Franking Commission Chairman Mike Capuano, D-Massachusetts, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi each weighed in on the matter and sought to make it clear that any new regulations would be limited for now to use of online video sites such as YouTube and Qik.

Still, the virtual world is very complicated. The existing franking rules covering Web sites prohibit advertising and political advocacy on lawmakers' official House Web sites. But outside of the www.house.gov domain in the most popular social networking Web sites, advertising thrives.

"Some people have no concerns with their names appearing next to a political ad," Capuano said. "I understand that." But Capuano added, "Some people do."

For now, Capuano said he will trust his colleagues to operate on an honor system when it comes to posting material on the many social networking sites.

But, that is not enough for Culberson, who said that his on-line communications should be treated no differently than "old, traditional media outlets."

"I'm not stopping," he said in the interview. "They will not stop me. They can no more regulate the Internet than they can regulate the wind."

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