FCC's social-media efforts draw fire

Agency is neglecting transparency, critic says

 The Federal Communications Commission won new fans Sept. 10 when it launched a new video blog by its chairman and an online brainstorming forum on broadband policy using the crowd-sourcing platform Ideascale. But a transparency advocate warns that for the FCC, Web 2.0’s shiny new tools could be a distraction from, rather than a help to, transparency.

“FCC is giving us the bells and whistles but what we really need is to get the data in accessible formats,” said Berin Michael Szoka, a senior fellow at the Progress and Freedom Foundation,

Szoka said the new projects are misplaced priorities because FCC’s existing public comment system, the Electronic Comment Filing System (ECFS), is “antiquated” and “horrendous,” with limited capabilities. The system contains more than 10,000 comments on the commission's proposals for broadband networks, but it is difficult to search, Szoka said. Users cannot use the system to search for specific text in the comments, greatly limited the system's usefulness, he said.

However, other transparency advocates don't fault the FCC for the new projects. “There is no reason to wait to start a Twitter account or a blog,” said Art Brodsky, a spokesman at Public Knowledge. “I think they recognized that and brought it up quickly. It is a good first step for them to modernize their face to the public."

Public Knowledge is a nonprofit group that is "working to defend your rights in the emerging digital culture," according to its Web site.

Mark Wigfield, an FCC spokesman, said the comments system needs substantial improvement. However, he defended the new blog and broadband Web dialogue initiatives as having an immediate short-term benefit. “This is just providing another avenue and hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, the ECFS will be easier to use and easier to search,” he said.

FCC isn't alone in needing to consider the value of introducing new technologies instead of revitalizing existing systems. The same dilemma is occurring with the federal efforts to launch the new Recovery.gov Web site to track spending under the economic stimulus law. Meanwhile, an existing federal spending site, USAspending.gov, needs improvements, said Patrice McDermott, director of OpentheGovernment.org. Other agencies are also experimenting with social media.

“There is a tension between favoring the new media versus the hard slog of getting the older media to be useful for the public,” McDermott said.

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