Web powerful in politics ? not governing
- By William Matthews
- Nov 15, 2000
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
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
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