Original URL: http://www.tao.ca/wind/rre/0132.html

Date: Fri, 11 Apr 1997 17:46:30 -0400 (EDT)
From: James Love <love@tap.org>
To: Multiple recipients of list <info-policy-notes@essential.org>
Subject: Cokie Roberts on How Internet Is Ruining Representative Government

This is a real syndicated column by Cokie Roberts. It is not a spoof. Cokie interviewed me about how the Internet is changing the relationship between citizens and government agencies, after she read about the FTC's decision to take email comments on the Staples merger. She then wrote this astonishing column with her husband, Steven Roberts. At the end of Cokie's column is a letter to the editor sent by Susan Ashdown, a reader of the Salt Lake Tribune, which is one of newspapers which ran the column. Since Susan brought this to my attention, I am including her letter. Cokie and Steven Roberts column, and Susan's letter to the editor, are redistributed with permission.

Jamie Love (love@tap.org, 202.387.8030 http://www.cptech.org

Salt Lake Tribune, April 5, 1997, Page A-11

Internet Could Become a Threat
To Representative Government

Cokie Roberts and Steven Roberts

United Features

Cyber seduction, cult by computer, kids caught in an indecent web! The headlines have been scary of late as we learn more about the dangers of the brave new world of the Internet.

To be sure, the experts keep assuring us that the World Wide Web does more good than harm-that it can help young people find facts, police officers hunt down clues, and citizens communicate with their government.

"If you're on-line, you're inside the Beltway," in the opinion of Graeme Browning, author of the book Electronic Democracy, which argues that the Internet is making individuals more politically powerful. Sounds good, but is it?

For many parents, the idea of yet another influence in their children's lives over which they have no control is threatening. The horrible thought that, in the privacy of your own home, your child could be the target of some sick predator was frightening enough. Now, since reading the news recently, the fear of recruitment to some kooky cult must be added to the list of computer concerns.

Responding to those worries, Congress passed the Computer Decency Act, aimed at blocking pornography on the Internet. The law was immediately challenged as an unconstitutional abridgement of free speech, and last month the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the case. In their questions the justices revealed the same wide-eyed wonder we feel when hearing about the latest form of communication. What is this thing anyway? How does it work and what can it do?

One thing it clearly can do is bring citizens more into the decision-making processes of government. That came home to us recently when we heard that the Federal Trade Commission was accepting electronic mail on the question of whether Office Depot stores should be allowed to merge with Staples. The FTC has so far received thousands of comments and a spokeswoman says that, although the merger decision won't be based on what the agency hears from the public, she thinks the e-mail is a good idea. The FTC decided to do it, she admitted, because of pressure from the Consumer Project on Technology.

"The Internet is the best thing in my lifetime for grassroots organizing," exults the Project's director, Jamie Love. He's managed to use the system to influence various government agencies, and to educate the public. Love argues that this type of organization and communication cuts through the special interest politics that he believes rules Washington. "I think there's a general sense that people who can hire a guy and game the system have a leg up," says Love.

Somewhere between 250,000 to 350,000 people check into the site dealing with congressional activities every day. And then many of these people get in touch with their representatives, by e-mail, of course.

They also get in touch with each other on public policy issues. According to Love, it's like an electronic town meeting. That analogy makes our blood run cold. Remember, that was Ross Perot's big idea. Let's just all get together, via computer, and let the politicians know what we want, so then they will do it! No more pandering to the big contributors, no more deals between members, just the voice of the people will be heard!

We hear that and shudder. To us it sounds like no more deliberation, no more consideration of an issue over a long period of time, no more balancing of regional and ethnic interests, no more protection of minority views.

The Founders were clear in their advocacy of representative democracy as opposed to direct democracy. In The Federalist, James Madison asserted that "the public voice pronounced by the representatives of the people will be more consonant to the public good than if announced by the people themselves convened for that purpose."

But representative government is under attack. "We've been electing people for years and never been in worse shape and felt more disconnected," says Barbara Vincent of the National Referendum Movement. Her organization wants to put initiatives and referenda on the ballots of every state so that the people can decide "the really important issues" while Congress can handle "everyday affairs." And Ms. Vincent has public opinion on her side. In a bipartisan poll, fully three-quarters of the people said they favored putting national issues on ballots across the country.

Computers could make that possible. And, if we're not careful, they might. Jamie Love is right that people think the game is fixed, and Barbara Vincent is right that the voters feel disconnected. The best thing the lawmakers can do to fix that is to call a halt to the money chase, to show constituents that they count. If that doesn't happen, congress could eventually find its very existence threatened, thanks to the Internet. And that would make the current debate over pornography seem like small potatoes.

Date: Fri, 11 Apr 1997 14:31:21 -0600 From: Sue Ashdown <zero@xmission.com>

To the Editors of the Salt Lake Tribune & United Features:

Now I've heard everything. The Internet is nothing but a cyber-sewer, full of smut, cults, and now an even greater danger: easy access to government officials. Cokie Roberts and her husband say their "blood runs cold" at the idea of citizens emailing their opinions directly to the Federal Government instead of channeling them through their "representatives". They argue that it would mean the end of reasoned consideration of a variety of views, and worse, it might bring us closer to direct instead of representative democracy - not what the Founding Fathers intended. (The Founders weren't too keen on emancipation either, but never mind.)

Talk about the end of reason. I fail to see how the direct expression of public opinion logically leads to the destruction of careful deliberation. Perot wasn't my choice for President, but the mere fact that "electronic town meetings" were his "big idea" does not automatically make them meritless.

Personally my blood runs cold when I think of the representative democracy Cokie has in mind. Her brother, Tommy Boggs, of the Washington law firm Patton, Boggs & Blow made quite a name for himself as a lobbyist arguing strenuously on behalf of erstwhile Guatemalan dictators and death squad financiers in the 1980's and early 1990's. If as the Roberts claim, a halt to the money chase is a far better solution to voter discontent than the airing of public opinion through the Internet, then presumably this means that Tommy's firm will find better uses for its generous cash donations to candidates across the political spectrum. I can understand Cokie standing up for her brother's interests - I'd do the same for mine, who's done reasonably well as an Internet Service Provider, but at least I'd reveal my motives.

Sincerely, Sue Ashdown Salt Lake City, Utah