BOB GARFIELD: Imagine if you will helping to make laws and craft regulations on the internet. Right now we can trade anything through EBay; learn everything from Google. Why shouldn't we have the capacity to order up political reform on line? On the Media's Susan Kaplan reports on the latest digital leap forward -- E-Democracy.
SUSAN KAPLAN: The idea of using the internet to involve people in politics, sometimes called E-Government, is not new-- unless of course we remember that the world wide web is only a little more than a decade old.
COLIN RULE: When the internet bubble was really going and there was a lot of investment out there, tons of companies emerged to do this kind of work -to help connect people with governments.
SUSAN KAPLAN: Colin Rule, one of the founds of Mediate.com, an online dispute resolution provider, says when money for internet startups dried up, most of the investment in E-Government projects did too. But he believes the internet will evolve into a new arena for civic participation. He thinks an increasingly tech-savvy population will drive the demand and he doesn't believe the general public is apathetic or uninterested in politics.
COLIN RULE: I think that one of the reasons why people don't participate is because they just feel completely disconnected from the process. There's no avenues for participation. There's no sense that their input matters. You may have a vote, but that's a very blunt instrument for expressing your opinion.
SUSAN KAPLAN: Rule, who also teaches an E-Democracy course at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst says part of the internet's promise is that it lets people hash out their thoughts on a particular subject -- the chat room concept. He says it's through this sort of conversation or what you might call virtual public debate that people come to understand their political positions and develop their political identities. But he says it all depends on accurate information. He says before the internet, governments held most of the power over information -- something he says the internet is helping to change.
COLIN RULE: I mean the government has put billions of dollars into building systems that allow the citizenry to get access to that information, and those web sites like firstgov or e-gov or regulations.gov -- they're web sites that the federal government as a whole has put together to aid that information-dissemination process.
SUSAN KAPLAN: But Rule says dissemination without the mechanism for deliberation isn't going to engage people. In other words there has to be a way for the decision-making process to be interactive. He says that's taking more time to put into place, and in some places it's already happening.
COLIN RULE: Public participation has taken root more firmly in Europe and in Australia and, and in Southeast Asia than in the United States in some arenas. There are treaties that have been adopted by the EU for instance dealing with public participation in environmental decision-making that require these type of online multi-party dialogues to occur before a policy is enacted.
SUSAN KAPLAN: There are examples where the internet is already having an impact on public policy. Recent events, like when the FCC was forced to respond to the public in part through an internet campaign, or the huge amount of money raised on line by presidential candidate Howard Dean. But the internet's value as a tool of democracy is only as good as the democracy itself. Shanthi Kalantil of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is author of Open Networks, closed regimes -- the impact of the internet on authoritarian rule.
SHANTHI KALANTIL: One of the common fallacies that usually exist when people talk about the internet and democratization is the assumption that the internet itself will lead to democratization, and in fact, you know, the internet is simply a tool, and if there are obstacles to democracy, it can't necessarily route around those political obstacles.
SUSAN KAPLAN: To try to get a better handle on evolving E-Government in the United States, UMass professor Colin Rule assigned his students the task of finding concrete examples of E-Democracy, and what they found, like democracy itself, was a little messy.
JAMES PERRY: Oilyclams is unregistered, Peeper is unregistered, Taxpayertwo is unregistered, HitTheNailOnTheHead is unregistered--
SUSAN KAPLAN: That's James Perry listing some of the aliases of unregistered users of a web site in his home town -- Westport, Massachusetts. The site, run by a local newspaper, is a forum for discussions about local issues like town zoning and select board policy making.
JAMES PERRY: A ton of people look at this stuff. My father is the one that showed me the web site when my uncle was badmouthed on it. And my mother and my father and my brothers, aunts, uncles, grandparents -- they're all on it and they're all reading every night.
SUSAN KAPLAN: Perry says even though the web site often becomes a kind of online rumor mill, it also seems to make the local politicians a bit more careful about what they say and do.
JAMES PERRY: There is a lot of, lot of activity on this site, and that, that's good to see. There's a lot of gossip on this site. And that's not so great to see. But you know a lot of it's true. And, and that makes things interesting because sometimes people try and get away with stuff and, and they don't. There's always someone looking.
SUSAN KAPLAN: Web sites like those in Westport reflect the democratic staple of holding public officials accountable. Web guru Ester Dyson who publishes an on line journal says the net is a great way of getting information out there so people can make informed political decisions--
ESTER DYSON: But it's not a great place to build social culture. It's not where children learn to share and to take turns. It's not where adults learn to compromise and, and do deals and, and negotiate tough issues. It's great for spreading news, but it -- again -- human beings are still chemical, not digital, and you, you can't forget that.
SUSAN KAPLAN: It's also important not to forget even with all its reach, power and impact the internet is, anthropologically-speaking, only recently out of the primordial soup. Again, Colin Rule.
COLIN RULE: I think that strategies that people are using -- the innovation that's happening now -- is just the scratches on cave walls stage. Eventually we're going to get to the printing press and, and move it forward, and I think whether or not it's going to take 2 or 3 years like everybody originally thought when the internet bubble was growing strong or whether it's going to take 10 years or 15 years, the end result, which is the efficient integration of technology and its use to improve the operation of democracy is almost a foregone conclusion.
SUSAN KAPLAN: For On the Media, I'm Susan Kaplan. [MUSIC]