The Political System Goes Online

Article excerpt

Book Reviews

The Internet is quickly becoming an important factor in U.S. politics

Electronic Democracy:

Using the Internet to

Transform American Politics,

second edition

by Graeme Browning

Medford, NJ:

CyberAge Books, 2002

ISBN: 0-910965-49-8

190 pages

$19.95

The problems of the 2000 presidential election, exemplified by voting irregularities and subsequent lawsuits in Florida, caused a flurry of interest in online voting. But ever since the Internet became a readily available and popular medium, activists and politicians have been using it in many ways. As a writer for The Washington Post, National Journal, and Federal Computer Week (among others), Graeme Browning has had a front-row seat for the merging of politics and the Internet. She sees firsthand what works and what doesn't. In the second edition of Electronic Democracy: Using the Internet to Transform American Politics, she shares her insights as well as the stories of a number of Internet political groups and campaigns.

As an observer and analyst of both politics and technology, Browning is well-qualified to tell us about the world of Internet activism. She begins Electronic Democracy with a description of the first U.S. senatorial debate held online. This was in 1994, the year when Internet political activism really became an important force. As Browning says, "The Internet's greatest strength ... is its ability to support simultaneous, interactive communications among many people." This separates it from other media like the telephone, radio, or television.

Much of Electronic Democracy comprises the stories of those who have successfully used the Internet for political activism. One early participant, Jim Warren, was involved with computers and electronic bulletin board systems as early as 1976. Even before folks had wide access to the Internet, he lobbied for the passage of a 1993 bill requiring that citizens have online access to California legislative information. This successful effort pioneered the use of electronic "action alerts."

Browning goes on to describe several other pioneering endeavors that helped establish the Internet's importance. Carl Malamud, a Washington, D.C.-area computer scientist, started the Internet Multicasting Service in 1993. This resource recorded and broadcast Washington speeches and other events online. Later that year, Malamud became part of a pilot project that led to the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission's (SEC) EDGAR service, one of the U.S. government's most popular electronic resources. Even after the pilot project ended in 1995, Malamud loaned equipment to the SEC and trained its staff to run the system. His support was instrumental in keeping EDGAR operating as a free public resource rather than as a fee-based service. …