Advocacy Groups Fight Attempts To Limit Email

August 1, 2006       Marla Nobles      

In the way that many Congressional offices want to curb the number of emails they receive, a coalition of nonprofits is hoping to blunt the spread of what the group claims will prevent grassroots lobbying.

More than 100 nonprofit advocacy groups sent a letter to Congress protesting an effort by a growing number of Congressional offices to block bulk constituent email. Finding no response from Congress, the groups again aligned for the petition campaign Don’t Block My Voice.

As advocacy groups have moved their lobbying efforts online, today Congressional offices are receiving more than 300 million messages per year, a nearly 600-percent increase from 1995, according to a Congressional Management Foundation survey. With staff levels remaining stagnant and the volume of emails inflating, Congress cried wolf, or rather SPAM, and in late May the U.S. House of Representatives’ Chief Administrative Officer announced that the Write Your Representative (WYR) service that is used by most House members was being modified. The Web form system would now include an option  requiring users answer a “logic puzzle” question (e.g. provide the next number in this sequence: 19, 20, 21, 22) before submitting a comment.

The main reason for the “enhancement,” according to the WYR page: “Unfortunately, with the advent of email communication, some organizations have begun to use automated programs to send messages to Congress on behalf of constituents — better known as ‘SPAM.’ To prevent this practice we ask that you answer the question below. When you enter the correct response it ensures that the message is coming from a real person and helps your Representative respond to you as quickly as possible.” Calls to the CAO were not returned.

According to Bill Pease, chief technology officer for GetActive, a provider of advocacy services to nonprofits, the “logic puzzle” has been in use for some years in several Senate offices. The cause for concern now is how fast it’s spreading throughout House offices. “Once this became available, the House went from 0 to about 45 different representatives using it in a matter of weeks.” As of mid-July, just four Senate offices were using the software, compared to more than 50 House offices.

“It’s a universal issue,” Pete Sepp, vice president for communications at the 350,000-member National Taxpayers Union (NTU) in Alexandria, Va, said of the move by Congress to block bulk constituent emails. “For anyone who uses grassroots action to reach out to Congress, it’s a huge issue.”

Once it was discovered how fast the software was spreading, the coalition of nonprofits sent the letter to Congress, maintaining that the emails are in fact legitimate, not SPAM, and requesting an alternative solution. “We ask instead that you agree to work in a public, open and bipartisan way with nonprofits and other organizations to improve Congress’ handling of email communications for both your benefit and the benefit of your constituents,” the letter read. “While we understand and sympathize with the growing demand on Congressional staff posed by increasing volumes of email, blocking emails from your constituents that flow through organizations is not a solution, and in fact is a very significant threat to our democratic process.”

According to several participating organizations, Congress had yet to respond to the appeal, and the groups again aligned for Don’t Block My Voice. As of late June, more than 12,000 individuals joined the groups and signed their names in support of the campaign.

“Is Congress having a hard time managing it? Absolutely,” Pease said of the growing number of inbound communications. “Part of it is due to limited IT resources, and part of it is due to limited staff resources. Both of those problems are attributable to really no significant increase in the budget that Congress has made available to manage constituent communications for 20 years.”

Added Pease, “That’s not SPAM. That’s democracy. The whole notion of unsolicited email in the elected official communications context is ridiculous. People do not need permission to communicate with their elected officials.”

“It’s ridiculous,” agreed Sepp. “And, it’s hypocritical considering Congress has been using various versions of SPAM for a great many years in the form of unsolicited franked mailings, and more recently, automated telephone calling and the radio and television programs they record here at the Capitol and beam back to their districts.” Even more hypocritical — and ironic — said Sepp, is that “we have to pay for it. The software for these blocking technologies is coming out of members’ representational allowances. And franked mailing, that’s taxpayer funded, to the tune of about $20 million a year.”

The ePhilanthropy Foundation maintained the importance of both sides, the nonprofit sector and Congress, working together. “It’s a shared responsibility,” said the foundation’s president and CEO, Ted Hart, ACFRE, ePMT.

Foundation leaders issued a statement, which read, in part, “It is our belief that any system that creates barriers to this communication should be abandoned. At the same time, the ePhilanthropy Foundation urges all nonprofit organizations to be in compliance with all aspects of the ePhilanthropy code of ethics, and to be certain that the communication they inspire is targeted and not considered SPAM.”

According to Pease, while the administrative sides of the Congressional offices are focused primarily on reducing the volume of redundant inbound communications and SPAM, the political sides are generally concerned with the new software. “These days, the evidence shows that the people who engage in online activism are in fact some of the most valuable constituents that a politician has,” said Pease. “An office that is refusing to engage with them is telling potentially its most valuable prospective voters to buzz off.”

Another issue is the exclusion of prospective voters. “Aside from how this affects nonprofits, there’s a real issue associated with the ability of some members of the disabled population and folks for whom English is not the primary language, and the particular type of puzzle that has been created,” said Allison Kozak, director of online strategies at Earthjustice, a nonprofit law firm based in Oakland, Calif. “There are issues with whether the puzzle as-is excludes populations.”

At presstime, it was confirmed that U.S. Reps. John D. Dingell (D-Michigan) and Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) had deactivated the puzzle. According to a spokesperson for Dingell, the puzzle wasn’t serving its intended purpose of helping organize the inbound emails.

While Hart said he applauds those individuals who’ve chosen to deactivate the puzzle, “I think all of Congress should do that.” A better approach, added Hart, “is to engage in a dialogue that includes all sectors.”

GetActive, said Pease, along with other like vendors and many large nonprofits, is pursuing a separate and independent effort (from the petition) with Capitol Hill leadership to develop an open standard for advocacy communications. “Our objective is to talk with them about how to set up a system that allows for citizen communications, gives the offices tools that they need to filter and manage those communications, but doesn’t arbitrarily restrict communications,” he said. Pease said he’s hopeful that within the next six months, the three stakeholders — vendors, advocacy organizations and Congressional IT and office staff – will have aligned to figure out a more sensible solution.

“Our concern is that once you start limiting (communication), it’s not a big leap before someone is tweaking that system just so,” said Hart. “So that maybe you’re not hearing from certain people you don’t want to hear from.”   NPT

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