TechCrunch’s “CrunchGov” grades Congress on tech, pilots legislative crowdsourcing platform

In general, connecting more citizens with their legislators and create more resources for Congress to understand where their constituents and tech community stands on proposed legislation is a good thing. Last year’s Congressional hearings on the Stop Online Piracy Act and the PROTECT IP Act made it pretty darn clear that many technologists felt that it was no longer ok to not know how the Internet works. Conversely, however, if the tech world cares about what happens in DC, it’s no longer ok to not know how Congress works.

In that context, the launch of a policy platform by one of the biggest tech blogs on the planet could definitely be a positive development. TechCrunch contributor Greg Ferenstein writes that the effort is aimed at “helping policymakers become better listeners, and technologists to be more effective citizens.”

The problem with the initial set of tools is that they’re an incomplete picture of what’s online, at best. CrunchGov won’t satisfy the needs of tech journalists, staffers or analysts, who need deeper dives into expert opinion, policy briefings and data. (Public Knowledge, the Center for Democracy and Technology, OpenSecrets.org, the Sunlight Foundation, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation already offer those resources.)

Will “grading” Members of the House of Representatives on TechCrunch’s new Congressional leaderboard lead to them being better listeners? Color me, well, unconvinced. Will an “F” from TechCrunch result in Reps. Smith, Grassley, or Blackburn changing the bills they introduce, support or vote for or against?

Hard to know. True, it’s the sort of symbol that a political opponent could use in an election — but if Reddit’s community couldn’t defeat SOPA’s chief sponsor in a primary, will a bad grade do it? Ferenstein says the leaderboard provides a “a quantified opinion” of the alignment of Reps with the consensus of the tech industry.

Update: as reported by Adrian Jeffries at The Verge, this quantified opinion is based upon TechCrunch editorial and “data and guidance from four tech lobbies.”

Engine Advocacy, which represents startups; TechNet, which represents CEOs in areas from finance and ecommerce to biotech and clean tech; the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which represents major Silicon Valley employers; and the powerhouse conglomerate The Internet Association, which represents Amazon, Google, and Facebook, among others.

Ferenstein told Hamish McKenzie at PandoDaily that “We’re saying this is generally the view of many people who read our site.” If that’s the case, it would be useful to transparently see the data that shows how TechCrunch readers feel about proposed or passed bills — much in the same way that POPVOX or OpenCongress allow users to express support or opposition to legislation. At the moment, readers are stuck taking their word for it.

McKenzie also highlighted some problems with the rankings and the proposition of rankings themselves:

On three major issues – net neutrality, privacy, and cyber security – TechCrunch’s surveys found no consensus, which somewhat undermines the leaderboard rankings. After all, those rankings appear to be based mainly on three data points: a Congressperson’s position on SOPA, and his or her votes on the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act and the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act. It might be true that CrunchGov takes a data-driven approach to its rankings, but when three data points out a possible set of six are omitted, it’s fair to question just how useful the measure is.

As much as anything else, that speaks to the complicated definition of “those in the technology industry.” The industry is so broad and varied, from solo developers creating social games in their basements to hardware executives wanting to drive profits on their devices, that trying to establish consensus on political issues across a broad section of a relatively amorphous community is probably an impossible task. It also overemphasizes tech issues among the myriad of policy concerns that people working in the industry hold, some of which might seem tangential but are actually inextricably tied to the industry. What of climate change? What of taxes? What of puppies?

Also, applying grades to legislators puts TechCrunch in the same camp as the NRA, Americans For Tax Reform, and the Sierra Club in terms of assessing representatives based on narrow, and politically loaded, interests. It’s a headline-oriented approach that provides low-information people with a low-information look at a process and system that is actually very complicated.

More effective citizenship through the Internet?

I’m not unconvinced these limited bill summaries or leaderboard will help “technologists” become “more effective citizens,” though I plan to keep an open mind: this new policy platform is in beta, from the copy to the design to the number of bills in the legislative database or the data around them.

Helping readers to be “more effective” citizens is a bigger challenge than educating them just about how legislators are graded on tech-related bills. The scope of that  knowing who your Representative, Senators or where they stand on issues, what bills are up for a vote or introduced, how they voted, The new Congress.gov will connect you to many of the above needs, at the federal level. It might mean following the money, communicating your support or opposition to your elected officials, registering to vote, and participating the democratic processes of state and local government, from schools to . Oh, and voting: tens of millions of American citizens will head to the polls in under two weeks.

To be fair, CrunchGov does do some of these things, linking out to existing open government ecosystem online. Clicking “more info” shows positions Representatives have taken on the tech issues CrunchGov editors have determined that the industry has a “consensus” around, including votes, and links to their profiles in OpenCongress and Influence Explorer. Bill summaries link to maplight.org.

When it comes to the initial set of issues in the legislative database, there’s an overly heavy editorial thumb on the till of what’s deemed important to the tech community.

For one, “cybersecurity” is a poor choice for a Silicon Valley blog. It’s a Washington word, used often in the context of national defense and wars, accompanied by fears of a “cyber Pearl Harbor.” Network security, mobile device security or Web application security are all more specific issues, and ones that startups and huge enterprises all have to deal with in their operations. The security experts I trust see Capitol Hill rhetoric taking aim at the wrong cybersecurity threats.

CrunchGov has only one bill selection for the issue — the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) (H.R. 3523). The summary explains that CISPA proposes more information sharing, has a pie chart showing that “tech-friendly legislators” are split 50/50 on it, shows endorsements and opposition, links to 3 articles about the bill, including TechCrunch’s own coverage.

What’s left unclear? For one, that Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) – an “A-lister” who TechCrunch writes “has received numerous awards and accolades from the industry,” supported CISPA. Or that organizations and advocates concerned about its implications for privacy and civil rights strongly opposed it. If you’re a technologist, legislator or citizen, honestly, you’re better off reading ProPublica’s explainer or the Center for Democracy and Technology’s CISPA resource page.

There’s also framing choices that meant a number of bills aren’t listed — and that the Senate is left out entirely. Why? According to Ferenstein, “the “do-nothing” congress made it impossible to rank the Senate, because they didn’t pass enough bills related to technology policy.”

It’s true that the Senate hasn’t passed many bills — but the 51 laws that did go through the Senate in the 112th Congress include more tech policy issues than that statement might lead you to believe, from e-verify to online leak prevention. It’s also moved laws that every citizens should know about, like the extension of the PATRIOT Act, given that provisions affect the tech industry. (Yes, digital due process matters in the age of the cloud: your email isn’t as private as you might think it is.)

Putting a legislative crowdsourcing platform to re-use

Congressional leaderboard and limited legislative dashboard aside, CrunchGov is trying to crowdsource legislation using a local installation of MADISON, the software Congressman Issa’s office developed and rolled out last December during the first Congressional hackathon. MADISON was subsequently open sourced, which made the code available to TechCrunch.

It’s in this context that CrunchGov’s aspirations for technology to “democratize democracy itself” may be the most tested. The first test case will be a bill from Congressman Issa to reform government IT procurement. For this experiment to matter, the blog’s readership will need to participate, do so meaningfully, and see that their edits are given weight by bill authors in Washington. Rep. Issa’s office, which has distinguished itself in its use of the Internet to engage the public, may well do so. If proposals from the initial pilot aren’t put into bills, that may be the end of reader interest.

Will other Congressmen and staffers do the same, should their bills be posted? It’s hard to say. As with so many efforts to engage citizens online, this effort is in beta.

This post has been updated, including links to coverage from Pando Daily and the Verge.

About Alex Howard

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.