Web powerful in politics ? not governing

Beyond question, the Internet has proven its utility in politics.

Democrats.com, for example, has used the Web to round up 3,000 notarized

affidavits from Florida voters for possible use in court challenges if Republican

George W. Bush is awarded the presidency. Meanwhile, Web traffic remains

at rush-hour volumes on sites devoted to the Florida vote recount. And candidates

have shown they can raise millions of dollars and mobilize thousands of

supporters effectively over the Web.

What has not been demonstrated, however, is that the Internet can be

effectively used in governing, laments Steven Clift, who heads Democracies

Online. The Minnesota-based organization exists to promote the Internet

as a way to make government more democratic.

So far, "the Internet is doing a poor job of empowering people," Clift

told a gathering of online government advocates Wednesday. In theory, the

Web could permit widespread participation by the people in government decision-making.

In practice, it hardly ever happens.

Government agencies, for example, could post draft policies on the Internet

and let the public comment on them before writing final rules and regulations.

But none do, said Thomas Kelil, an information technology specialist for

the Clinton administration. There are some technical problems, such as how

to cope with the huge volume of responses some issues would undoubtedly

generate.

But problems like that could be solved. The real issue is that no one

in the government is responsible for thinking of how to use technology to

improve democracy, Kelil said.

Another problem is that government rules written for other purposes

are being applied to the Internet. In Congress, for example, members are

forbidden from updating their Web sites 60 days before an election. The

rule is related to one that prohibits incumbents from mailing multiple letters

to constituents immediately before an election, in effect campaigning at

taxpayers' expense. But Web sites are not the equivalent of mail. Mail is

delivered whether recipients want it or not. People choose to visit Web

sites.

Perhaps the biggest problem is widespread ignorance about the Internet

among elected officials and policy-makers.

"I've had candidates call and ask me if it was OK for them to accept

online campaign contributions," said Jim Buie, director of candidate services

for Democrats.com.

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