THE BELTWAY AND BEYOND

Internet has just begun to change government

Stephen M. Ryan

How will information technology impact democracy? That question was pondered by a group convened recently by the Aspen Institute of Washington.

The meeting was organized by David Skaggs, former member of Congress from Colorado, now executive director of the Democracy & Citizenship Program at the Aspen Institute.

Participants learned that this country's highest level of voter participation took place between 1870 and 1900, a period of lackluster presidential candidates with relatively modest agenda differences.

Since then, radio and television, mastered by Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy respectively, have transformed politics. Yet the overall downward trend of participation, as measured by voting levels, continues.

So when it comes to considering the ability of the Internet to again transform politics, one has to be skeptical.

The assembled academics and Net heads at the Aspen Institute gathering were worried about the prospect that America Online Inc., Microsoft Corp. and a few others would dominate both access to and content on the Internet. The very thought confounds those who had believed the nature of the Internet would result in a more atomized control of content.

They also fretted over attempts, in the form of old-fashioned vote packing, to control the recently privatized domain system. Apparently tens of thousands of people from Japan, South Korea and China registered to vote in last week's elections of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. They outweighed the fewer than 20,000 U.S. citizens who registered. This means that the United States, with approximately 70 percent of all Internet activity, may have permitted corporate types in Asia, most having registered at a handful of sites, to control domain name and routing systems.

Participants also discussed down-to-earth Internet political issues. For example, this year's Democratic presidential primary in Arizona included online voting. Voters who chose that route received a personal identification number in the mail. Turnout was good. Expect more states and political parties to adopt this new method of voting.

Need for manners

Conferees considered the notion of creating vibrant online communities engaging in serious, deliberate debate. Deliberation'and good manners'are usually missing from Internet debates. The Internet seems designed to aggregate those with matching opinions, whether they be aficionados of a dog breed or neo-Nazis. But when disagreeing people gather on the Net, discussion often degenerates into nasty flame exchanges.

Participants noted the ability of an ordinary political campaign Web site to explode into something important. For example, the site of Sen. John McCain's presidential bid drew in 11 million badly needed dollars after the Arizona Republican won a couple of primaries. Because it was credit card money, it became available to the campaign within 48 hours of donation. McCain's site attracted $1,000 contributions from people who don't get invited to old-fashioned political fundraisers.

Politicians like the Net's potential power to deliver personal messages to every voter. No one has gotten this technique right yet, but targeted e-mail is clearly a trend for campaigns.

Participants also discussed how the Internet can enable the gathering of petition signatures for off-the-wall ballot initiatives. But such ballot initiatives may revive citizen involvement in a political system where only 37 percent of eligible voters bothered to cast a ballot for Congress in 1998.

The potential of the Internet to improve the administrative and mission delivery parts of government is established, even if few agencies are living up to their potential. But it will be several more years before the politicians really harness the Internet to transform the democratic processes of debate, fundraising and voting itself.

As you struggle daily with how to meet the government's business objectives, take time occasionally to think like David Skaggs. Politicians, policy-makers and federal careerists all face the question of how a republican form of government, conceived by a group of farmers on the edge of a largely unknown continent 225 years ago, will be impacted by technology the founders couldn't have imagined.

Stephen M. Ryan is a partner in the Washington law firm of Manatt, Phelps and Phillips. He has long experience in federal information technology issues. E-mail him at SRyan@Manatt.com.

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