Cokie Roberts on How Internet Is Ruining Representative Government (fwd)

I guess Cokie's never heard of Minnesota E-Democracy or UK Citizens Online
Democracy (or maybe she has!)  :^)

In any event, this ought make those interested in the health of
the industry shiver.

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Fri, 11 Apr 1997 17:46:46 -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

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

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

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. 

	Sue Ashdown
	Salt Lake City, Utah

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