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Congressâ€TMs New Anti-spam Measures Confound Interest Groups

by Jessica Azulay

June 16, 2006 – Constituents who want to send e-mail to some members of Congress now must answer a simple math problem in order to get their message through. Congress members say the new "logic puzzles" are necessary to cut down on "spam," but activists are decrying the requirement as a barrier to democracy.

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According to the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, about 60 members of Congress have implemented the quiz as the latest in a series of questions web-users must answer before they can send a message to their elected officials. Most federal politicians already require a full name, home address and e-mail address.

Now constituents must answer questions like: "What is the sum of 7 plus one" or "9 8 7 : What is the 1st number listed at the start of this question?" The "puzzles" supposedly create a barrier English-reading humans can easily pass, but which will entangle an automated "virtual" visitor.

"Congress long ago did away with the literacy-test qualification to vote," said Caroline Fredrickson of the American Civil Liberties Union in a press statement. "Apparently, members of Congress acknowledge you shouldn’t have to pass a test to vote for them, but they don’t want you to contact them without taking a quiz."

Activist groups, especially those that use web forms on their own sites to help the public send pre-written e-mails to congress members, are outraged over the quiz. The math problems may be trivial to most would-be constituent correspondents, but they are designed to baffle the software used to carry out high-tech grassroots campaigns.

Some critics say that all the wrangling over how e-mail gets to Congress will not address the fundamental problem of lawmakers’ hostility toward constituent input.

Before being prompted to answer the logic puzzle, constituents are shown the message: "Unfortunately, with the advent of e-mail 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."

Members of Congress have defended the logic puzzles as necessary to ensure that e-mails are sent by individuals instead of by mass mailers. They complain that staffers are swamped with e-mail and need a way to cut down on volume. According to the Congressional Management Foundation, which helps Congress work more efficiently, lawmakers received 182 million messages through the Internet in 2004.

But groups that use the Internet to prompt the public to write Congress reject the notion that messages sent to lawmakers through their sites are "spam."

The ACLU is currently running campaigns urging the public to write Congress about the proposed flag-burning amendment and renewal of the Voting Rights Act. Web users can fill out their contact information on the organization’s site and then alter – or send as-is – a pre-written e-mail to their own representative about the issue. The ACLU’s software then relays the message through the senator’s or congressmember’s form on behalf of the sender. This process provides a relatively easy way for constituents to find and write all their elected federal officials at once, usually with a single, pre-crafted message.

The logic puzzle, however, would likely stump messages sent from the ACLU’s website to members of Congress using a logic puzzle because, even though the message comes from an individual, mediating software would be attempting to fill out the recipient’s own contact form.

Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn.org, a web-based liberal advocacy group, told the Washington Post: "We should be living in the golden age of politics – an age in which every member of Congress can easily have a two-way conversation with his or her most engaged constituents. Instead, we're seeing bunkerization."

According to the Post, on one day last week, constituents or computers trying to send communications to congress members ran into logic puzzles 8,262 times, and successfully reached the next step only 19 percent of the time.

Companies that provide advocacy groups with the software to allow the public to send messages to Congress through their own websites are already developing ways to incorporate the math quizzes into their forms.

For instance, Capitol Advantage, a vendor that provides interest groups with tools enabling web users to send messages to Congress without ever visiting the recipient’s site, has already integrated the logic puzzles into its software. So people sending messages through the websites of Capitol Advantage client organizations can answer the logic puzzles and make sure their messages get through. The tool cannot, however, answer the question for the sender.

Some critics say that all the wrangling over how e-mail gets to Congress will not address the fundamental problem of lawmakers’ hostility toward constituent input, especially when it comes in the form of e-mail.

"I think what we – the collective we – have done [over] the past few years has been to introduce volume… into the discussion, but we have not substantially given the people any more voice," wrote Gavin Clabaugh of the Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network blog.

"Perhaps more people are involved and politicized…, but the unintended consequence has been that we have so devalued the available communications channels that they are worthless," Clabaugh continued. "We make it easy to assuage our outrage, and in the end, that outrage is impotent – just go to this web site and click this link to send a letter to your congressperson. Now you're done, your sins are absolved."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


This News Report originally appeared in the June 16, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Jessica Azulay is a staff journalist.

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