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(Author’s note: This article ran as the Commentary cover piece in the Orange County Register Sunday, May 9. I thought Web aficionados would be interested in seeing what the readers of at least one major Southern California newspaper are being told about the politics of the Internet.Of course, I would be especially interested in feedback — preferably effusive praise and strictly constructive criticism, of course — from people who are more experienced and confirmed surfers than I. Did I get it right? Partly right? All wrong? (Please let me know. AB)
Jesse Ventura claims the Internet was a big factor in his surprise Minnesota gubernatorial victory last November. Serious candidates for most political offices have websites these days. Perhaps it would have come out anyway, but Internet journalist/gossip Matt Drudge prodded the Monica Lewinsky story by reporting that Michael Isikoff at Newsweek had a story ready but editors had delayed it.
The fact that the news broke on the Internet before it hit the major traditional media — in a way that pushed the trads into catch-up mode — altered the character of the story and perhaps the character of newsgathering and dissemination. Like any new communications medium the Internet will be used for political purposes and change the way politics is done.
But will Internet politics alter the traditional correlation of forces among interests and interest groups in the political arena? Will it allow for the effective expression of ideas outside theconstricted scope of the two major parties and the Beltway? Will it allow people who have been effectively shut out of the political process a way in?
In short, is the Internet just a new wrinkle — or a revolution that will eventually change everything, as the invention of the printing press did in the world of the written word?
BEATING THE FDIC
There is evidence that it has had a dramatic effect in certain issue debates. Among the best evidence that the Internet can throw traditional political and policy-making calculations awry is the “Know Your Customer” campaign that began last December.
It all started when the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. began developing a new set of regulations for banks. Under the new regulations banks would have to keep track of way all their customers did business and to report to federal regulators when customers deviated from their customary banking habits — with, for example, unusually large deposits or withdrawals. The stated purpose was to give the Feds another way to get at criminals, especially drug dealers, who knew ways around previous regulations.
Bank privacy and intrusive federal regulations are sensitive issues among some conservatives and libertarians. In November, WorldNetDaily broke the story. In early December the conservative Free Congress Foundation did an “alert” on the issue with mail and faxes. The Register and a few other newspapers did editorials. The ACLU opposed the proposal. In the normal course of matters, one would have expected the FDIC to get a few hundred letters and go ahead with the regulation. According to a New York Times story by Rebecca Raney, however, by mid-March the FDIC had received 257,000 comments — an unprecedented and huge number — with all but about 50 in opposition. Some 80 percent of the negative comments came by e-mail. The FDIC withdrew the proposed regulation, and the Senate passed a non-binding “sense of the Senate” resolution opposing “Know Your Customer” 88-0.
What caused the turnabout among leaders? The Internet. In doing so it changed the conventional wisdom that Congress and federal regulatory bodies are not yet ready to be influenced by e-mail (previous Internet advocacy campaigns had urged sympathizers to send letters or faxes). The biggest factor was a
website put up by the Libertarian Party
which let people compose their own letter to the FDIC and send it directly to the FDIC e-mail comment site — with copies to their congressman and their two senators. That website generated some 171,000 e-mails — 83 percent of the 205,000 e-mail hits — and gave the party a list of 140,000 e-mail addresses of people who had asked to be updated on privacy issues.
Not surprisingly, the party soon found more reasons to keep in touch. It fears the FDIC will find a quieter, less formal way to put “know your customer” in place. It is supporting a financial privacy package by Texas Republican Rep. (and former LP presidential candidate) Ron Paul. H.R. 516-518 would make a “know your customer” regulation illegal, “sunset” out the Nixon-era Bank Secrecy Law and allow Americans to view files created on them by the Financial CrimesEnforcement Network.
“It’s time for Congress to reign in the creeping Surveillance State, says Rep. Paul. “The time has come, the people are demanding it.” (Info available at
Rep. Paul’s website.)
The success of the
campaign was not necessarily automatic according to Jack Dean, whose Fullerton firm (name recently changed from Web Commanders to
) developed and maintained the site for the party. One key was arranging for “not a form letter but a framework,” as Mr. Dean explained to me. The recipient’s address was programmed in along with a subject line (alerting the savvy that this was an organized campaign) but people wrote their own comments in their own words.
Dean’s company also used programs that used ZIP codes to determine who a letter-writer’s member of Congress is and generate a letter. A new program for the financial privacy campaign will determine if a member of Congress is already a co-sponsor of Paul’s legislation and if not, generate a separate “please be a co-sponsor” letter. Sponsors get a thank-you letter.
So a person concerned about financial privacy had to do little more than write a letter and click a button to have his or her opinion registered with several decision-makers. As Dean told me, “It’s not so important for a voter to know the intricacies of the legislative schedule as to have an opinion and the ability to express it forcefully.”
He believes that while early e-mail campaigns are probably viewed as a gnat-like nuisance in Washington, the potential of the Internet to increase citizen participation and improve the quality of information in decision-making processes is vast.
“It’s not exactly Ross Perot’s ‘electronic Town Hall’ yet, but Internet advocacy campaigns offer a valuable way to figure out what really concerns people out there,” said Dean. “Using technology to make a website or a campaign user-friendly is important, but if hardly anybody cares about an issue the bells and whistles won’t do it. Policy makers should be aware that a response like the ‘Know Your Customer’ campaign indicates large numbers of people with intense opinions. Knowing that should improve the process.”
InternetCampaigns.com has created two more sites for the Libertarian Party:
offers ways to write letters to members of Congress and other decision-makers. And
lets viewers write letters in favor of implementing California’s medical marijuana law. Both sites take advantage of the fact that it is so easy to create links to other Internet sites. Thus they have links that permit people to get detailed information, but the sites themselves concentrate on encouraging action and making action easy.
THE ‘EXECUTIVE ORDER’ ISSUE
The power of the Internet to affect public policy was demonstrated last summer after President Clinton issued Executive Order 13083, on federalism.
Writers for WorldNetDaily, a news site run by former newspaper editor Joseph Farah and his Western Journalism Center in Sacramento, analyzed the order and found it rescinded Reagan administration orders on federalism and would lead to more concentrated federal power. (WorldNetDaily had also broken the “know your customer” issue.)
“In the beginning, we couldn’t even get conservative activists to talk about it, criticize it, to analyze it,” Farah told me. “Rep. Bob Barr’s office says he became aware of the order when constituents clutching WorldNetDaily printouts questioned him at a local meeting.” Before long state and local officials were flooded with e-mail and became concerned themselves about what they came to view as a federal power-grab.
Finally pressure from those state and local officials — few of them ideological libertarians or conservatives — caused the administration to take the almost unheard-of action of rescinding an Executive Order.
ALTERNATIVE NEWS SITES
WorldNetDaily is an example of an “alternative” news site that has thrived on the Internet. Farah, a former editor of the Glendale News-Press and Sacramento Union, formed the Western Journalism Center in the early 1990s to support and publicize investigative journalism. He was an early supporter and ally of Christopher Ruddy, whose investigations into the death of Vincent Foster led to a major book and a cottage industry.
“Drudge was my inspiration,” Farah told me. “I found myself looking at his site all the time and asking myself why. Though I still love what Drudge does, I felt I could take it much further in some ways — to actually develop a full-service Internet newspaper.” The site went up in May 1997, four to six weeks after the decision to do it. “Initial costs were practically nothing,” Farah says. “There was a monthly fee for the server, our designer donated most of his time, Elizabeth [Farah’s wife] and I did the rest of the work in the beginning.”
Farah talked Matt Drudge into putting a link to WND on the Drudge site. “Later, the promotion came from talk radio and from other Internet sites … Talk radio continues today to promote WorldNetDaily effectively. In many ways WND helps set the agenda for talk radio across the country.”
Farah says he was excited to reach 10,000 hits a day after six months. The site got about 300,000 hits after a year and now, not quite two years later, averages 3 million hits a day.
A hit is any time any element on a page is rendered. A newspaper or news website could get 15 hits in two minutes as somebody glances at things and moves on. A page view is when a full page is rendered. A unique visitor is somebody with a unique e-mail address visiting the site, measured over any period of time, from an hour to a month; second or third visits by the same person wouldn’t be counted. Webmasters also keep track of session time or time per visit, the amount of time somebody spends on a site, which is said to measure a site’s “stickiness.”
Perhaps the most important measure, since it appears at this stage that websites are likely to be financed by advertising rather than subscriptions (e.g., Microsoft’s Slate magazine recently stopped charging a subscription fee) is clicks on ads, viewers who actually view the more complete, hard-sell version of a banner ad.
The route to attention on the Web seems to be to be provocative in an anti-establishment way. Chris Ruddy, formerly a colleague of Farah’s and now a competitor, with the 6-month-old
NewsMax.com, made that clear in an interview.
“The Internet now is the bastion of those going against the establishment and mainstream,” he told me.
It’s not just right wingers who politick on the Internet.
was started last September by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs upset withthe move to impeach President Clinton.
It just began a campaign to get signatures on a petition calling (in a general way) for government to do more gun control. Its site claims to have gathered 450,000 signatures against impeachment and raised pledges of $13 million for year 2000 campaigns.
“We are forging a new way to use the Internet for participation,” says the site. “After the Internet, democracy will never be the same.” The Internet can affect other kinds of government action. A day or so after Steve Kubby and his wife Michele, both doctor-certified medical marijuana patients, were arrested for marijuana sales and cultivation in Tahoe City in January, a deputy sheriff quietly asked Steve if he could “turn off” the e-mail campaign.
That was the first Steve knew of the campaign, made more likely because he was a public figure (former Libertarian gubernatorial candidate) who published an online magazine. Kubby says it may be his imagination, but he thinks he and Michele were treated better after jailers learned of hundreds of e-mails protesting the arrest.
ANTI-ESTABLISHMENT, FOR NOWThe composition of Internet users is changing, with a broader cross-section of the public than early techno-geeks (who tend to be individualistic) going online.
But Internet polls, even on “mainstream” sites like ABC News or MSNBC, still come out more conservative or favorable to limited government than do the random-sample polls that are a staple of most news reporting.
The fastest-growing segment of Internet users, according to Alex Fowler of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco (which has used the Internet effectively to fight against Internet censorship and taxing the Internet) is among people over 50.
About 20 percent of those over 65 now are online — probably at first because it’s a way to communicate with children and grandchildren who never call — and older people and retired people have traditionally been more politically active than the population at large. We’ll see whether they use their Internet literacy to push for limited government or to extend and expand Social Security.
While the Internet may be co-opted eventually by more traditional political interests, it is currently a haven for those who believe their views aren’t understood or taken into account by the political establishment or the media, and is likely to remain so for some time. The connection between sites like WorldNetDaily and talk radio is not coincidental; both appeal to people who feel deserted by the establishment media. Even as establishment figures learn how to use the Net, the anti-establishment figures will still have a constituency, perhaps a growing one.
The nature of the Internet, with its intricate cross-border web of connections among people with similar interests, suggests it is more likely to undermine hierarchies than to bolster them. The ideal communications medium for an authoritarian regime is a simple system with few outlets that can be controlled effectively from the top. After the invention of the printing press, governments in most of Europe rigidly controlled them.
In England, press licensing was introduced by Henry VIII, and relative press freedom didn’t begin until the Licensing Act expired (more by accident than by conscious decision) in 1695, and ownership of a printing press didn’t require a license from the Crown — though censorship remained.
Press freedom as Americans understand it, a la the First Amendment, still doesn’t exist in England, which has numerous restrictions on what the press can print for both national security and morality reasons, and still occasionally suppresses a book.
Since the onset of the computer revolution governments at various levels have tried and (so far) failed to seize control of a communications medium governments would prefer to visualize (andpolice) as a simple, controllable “information superhighway.” Scares about pornography and bomb instructions, the antitrust prosecution of Microsoft, rumbles about Internet taxes, the United Nations wanting to horn in on who can control website domain names all reflect the desire to control this new medium.
BE YOUR OWN PUBLISHER
But the Internet can make every computer owner his or her own publisher.
Having a professional company host and maintain a website requires only a modest investment, and several companies even offer free website hosting. Individuals can easily develop lists of e-mail recipients and send the same message — a story or column from another source or something they have written — to dozens, hundreds or thousands of recipients. Having these informal networks already in place facilitated the “Know Your Customer” campaign.
Such networks — legion, but still a small part of what moves across the Web — tend to make formal hierarchies less relevant than before. The “Know Your Customer” campaign succeeded without, and beneath the radar of, most of the panoply of lobbyists and special-interest groups that populate Washington, D.C., and have generally been considered essential to getting things done.
That doesn’t mean Internet politics is a slam-dunk. New constituencies can be built, but a campaign like “Know Your Customer” wouldn’t have been successful without a large group of Americans concerned about federal intrusion into their bank accounts, many of whom are computer-literate — and an e-mail address set up to receive comments.
A deadline (the FDIC had a set period to receive comments) along with a sense of impending crisis, seems to energize Internet users.
By giving a voice to those who believe the political establishment and traditional media don’t serve their interests or report on their issues, the Internet will change politics. While more effective government control is always possible, the evidence to date is that it is likely to do so in a profoundly democratizing, decentralizing, hierarchy-smashing, subversive and liberating fashion.