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Electronic democracy: can we retake our government?

Every government degenerates

when trusted to the rulers of the

people alone. The people themselves

therefore are its only safe

depositories.

Electronic town halls. Telephone elections. The White House and Congress on-line. Grass-roots networks. Interactive television. Will these technologies add to or detract from our democracy?

The word democracy stems from two Greek words: demos, which means "people"; and kratos, which denotes "power." Democracy is, literally, power to the people. In Jefferson's pre-electronic era, only (Caucasian) male property owners voted. In our electronic age, men and women from all ethnic and socioeconomic classes can vote. Still, many Americans feel powerless. They assert that our annual votes are erased by daily bribes from lobbyists to our politicians.

Citicorp Bank, United Airlines, and the National Rifle Association employ computers to build empires. A fascinating question arises: can you and I use computers to rebuild our democracy? Can keyboards, video screens, and modems empower us to bypass lobbyists and to oversee our politicians? There is good news and bad news.

Let us examine three areas where we can exploit computers to fashion a worthwhile "electronic democracy": public access to government data, grass, roots networks, and public feedback to government.

Public Access to Government Data. Democracy works only if we are well-informed. In Jefferson's day, the government stored records on paper. Today, politicians and bureaucrats are recording their deeds in electronic formats. For example, the Department of Justice has created JURIS, a computer database that holds all federal court decisions. Other agencies archive their policies, statistics, satellite images, maps, corporate activities, and patents in their own databases.

How does this database world impact citizens? I asked James Love, director of Ralph Nader's Taxpayer Assets Project. Love says that citizens need a new "library card" to read and study these computer databases. Unfortunately, such library cards are often expensive.

The Reagan and Bush regimes worked hard to "privatize" government data. Thus, government agencies and private companies often sell data that we paid our government to collect. They charge hefty prices. James Love gives one dramatic example: Gregory Orman, then a Princeton senior, wanted to study the cause of bank failures. The National Technical Information Service (NTIS), a federal agency, quoted Orman a price of about $20,000 for the data--though it would only cost a few hundred dollars to actually copy and ship the data. NTIS has about 60 regular customers who buy its bank reports. These clients are mostly large banks and Wall Street companies that can afford the outrageous fees.

There is more bad news. Our Congress and the Library of Congress generate two computer databases called LEGIS and SCORPIO, respectively. These databases contain the text of all bills, the Congressional Record, and other items. Today, we must pay commercial vendors to receive this electronic data. Los Altos, California, for example, cannot afford the fees to receive the federal legislation which the city is man, dated to obey!

James Love and other activists think that this data profiteering is unfair. Jim Warren, a columnist for MicroTimes magazine, is one government watchdog. Warren has fought heroically to pass California Assembly Bill 1624, which "would mandate that already-computerized legislative data be publicly accessible by modem" One of Warren's proposals is to place computer terminals in all public libraries, so that voters can monitor our legislators. At press time, it is unclear what will happen to the bill. In any case, Warren urges us to carry the battle beyond California.

There is other good news. The federal government operates about 100 public BBSs (Bulletin Board Systems). For example, there is a BBS at (202) 647-9225 (modem). If you own the proper computer equipment, you can call this number for passport info and travel alerts. Do you want to know the voting record of your representatives, or who financed their campaigns? An Oregon group called Vote Smart keeps all kinds of records about Congress. You can telephone Vote Smart toll-free at (800) 622-SMART.

Congress should provide us with one-stop, on-line access to federal data-bases through the Government Printing Office. Al Gore supported legislation to this effect in 1992; however, the Bush regime defeated the bill. Private data vendors are battling to sabotage this bill, called WINDO. WINDO needs our support!

Grassroots Networks. Grassroots democracy is the art of organizing small folks with big hearts to beat the pillars of society with their big wallets. Maritza Pick has written a practical book called How to Save Your Neighborhood: The Sierra Club Guide to Community Organizing. Pick starts on the ground floor: in order to get anywhere, an activist must knock on neighbors' doors to find allies.

Many people use computers to search for and bond with sympathetic "neighbors." For example, the Chinese students at Tiananmen Square and the Russian democrats during the Moscow coup used computer networks to communicate with kindred spirits around the world. The Chinese and Russian autocrats knew how to censor radio, TV, and the print media; however, they could not shut down the computer networks.

Computer networks can be powerful friends for anybody who wants an electronic democracy. Many people realize this. PeaceNet, EcoNet, and ConflictNet are three networks sponsored by the Institute for Global Communications, a division of the Tides Foundation. These services provide electronic mail and computer conferences for nearly 9,000 peace, environmental, and human-rights activists and organizations!

Public Feedback to Government. Government officials are our employees. In order for the president, the governor, and the city clerk to serve our needs, we must guide them in a timely fashion.

Electronics makes it easy for us to contact these employees. We can telephone or FAX our government servants within minutes. For about $40 we can buy computer software that provides the name, FAX number, phone number, address, and committee assignments of congressional members. With this software, we can send letters and documents to any congressional committee or person in seconds. Soon all senators and representatives will have e-mail service. This will empower us to send them messages around the clock for almost no cost. The White House is already on-line: Bill Clinton's e-mail address is 75300.3115@ compuserve.com.

So far, so good. We can lead our politicians to the mailbag, but can we force them to read it? Clinton's computer mailbox was recently enlarged to hold 10,000 letters. This means that, at any given time, up to 10,000 e-mail letters are waking for him. Do you think that he reads them? Does anybody read them? It is easy to find out: send him e-mail and see what happens.

Some persons downplay letterwriting. They argue that we need "electronic townhalls" in which someone (Ross Perot or Oprah Winfrey?) chairs a panel discussion about, say, national health care. When the one-hour town meeting is over, we vote by pushing buttons tons on our interactive TV or on our telephone. Let us examine this alternative further.

U.S. law-enforcement agents recently encircled a Waco, Texas, cult. To make a long story short, Attorney General Janet Reno ordered the FBI to flush the cult out with tear gas. A firestorm ensued which killed scores of cult members. Was there a "more democratic" solution? Suppose every voter could push phone buttons to advise Reno to (1) leave the cult alone, (2) kill the cult members, or (3) starve the cultists into surrender. Would Reno, or anybody, profit from this poll?

The Waco siege inspired many polls ("instant elections"). When the cult compound was ablaze on television, about 90 percent of Americans blamed the FBI. After the fire had cooled and the FBI publicists talked to the media, about 80 percent of the public supported the FBI. Which poll should we act upon? Should we ask for opinions during the passion of the moment or when people have reflected on an issue?

To my mind, America is already paralyzed by a tyranny of polls. Our so-called leaders read polls over breakfast so that they know what to preach for lunch and to forget by dinner. This trivialization of the human mind is not democracy!

What role should computers play in our electoral process? An honest election--be it by telephone or voting booth--must satisfy three conditions. First, each voter's choice must be kept secret. Second, each voter must be guaranteed one (and only one) vote for issues for which he or she is eligible to vote. And third, votes must be correctly counted and reported.

Computers invite fraud and make it tough to satisfy these requirements. When people vote with pieces of paper, we can count each ballot to ensure accuracy. How do we know that our computer vote is secret? Perhaps it's stored on a disk alongside our name. Telephone voting systems are especially dangerous, because it is easy for the government to wiretap our phone. How do we know that our computer vote is equal to Senator Big's? Maybe Senator Big's son runs the computer voting system and gives his father 1,000 votes. Finally, how can anybody tell if the votes are accurately counted and reported? A government or a civilian computer hacker might rewrite an election for money, political motives, or a lark. More sophisticated computer crimes are already performed daily.

Private companies are vying to sell their computer voting systems. Each dealer says that its system is "better" than its competitors'. Counting votes is easy for a person or a computer. How can one computer be a "better" adder than another? It makes me wonder what else the computer does.

A desirable "electronic democracy" is possible. However, just as in Jefferson's day, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

Scientist Andre Bacard is the author of Hunger for Power: Who Rules the World and How. A guest on hundreds of talk shows, he can be reached at Box 3009, Stanford, CA 94309.
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes phone numbers for political computer networks; computer networks and interactive technologies
Author:Bacard, Andre
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Jul 1, 1993
Words:1632
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