The Internet has profoundly changed the way the participants in the public affairs process—politicians, government officials, lobbyists, activists, consultants, and journalists—go about their business, says a new study by the Public Affairs Council. According to the study, the Internet increases the transparency of public affairs, allowing easier and greater access to government documents and permitting competitors to keep tabs on what their counterparts are doing online.
The report’s author, journalist Tom Price, says the Internet “enables the news media to gather more information more quickly and transmit it instantly around the world. It facilitates access to raw information (and misinformation) for anyone with the interest and energy to look—and it underscores the need for trusted intermediaries who can sort the cyberwheat from the cyberchaff. It tries to push everyone into the fast lane. Its potential for driving change seems nearly limitless. 
“But, it has not changed the political life of the average Jane and Joe, who still pay little attention to politics and government. And it has not—and will not—remove face-to-face, arm-squeezing, backslapping, physical contact from the sport.”
The Public Affairs Council convened a “focus group” of 41 opinion-leaders from both houses of Congress, the executive branch, state legislatures, activist groups, corporations, the news media, labor unions, academia, political consulting firms and associations.
To a certain extent, the impact of the Internet on public affairs can be measured by statistics:
·         More than half of U.S. adults had Internet access by mid-1999, a proportion that is projected to rise to 63 percent in early 2000 and 70 percent by the time the next president is elected.
·         All U.S. senators and 94 percent of House members had Web sites in the spring of 1999, according to researchers at American University.
·         All congressional committees had Web sites, as did many House leaders.
·         The same number of Capitol Hill staffers use the Internet every day as read The Washington Post: 88 percent. That is more than turn daily to CNN (66 percent), network news (53 percent) or The New York Times (28 percent).
·         The front page of America Online’s election section recorded 1.4 million unique visitors on Election Day 1998 and 15 million throughout that campaign, triple the 1996 figures.
But its real impact is measured by the fact that various institutions have changed the way they do business, using e-mail as a mobilizing force, and to spur direct contact between supporters and Congress.
“The Internet clearly boosts the effectiveness of activist groups at all spots on the political spectrum, because it enables them to mobilize their members and sympathizers much more efficiently than they could in the days before Web sites and e-mail,” says Price.
He cites the ability of the Libertarian Party—not generally considered a powerful political force—to undermine the efforts of America’s leading financial regulators. Proposed in late 1998 by the Federal Reserve Board, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Office of Thrift Supervision and the Comptroller of the Currency, the regulation would have required banks to scrutinize customers’ banking patterns more closely in an effort to detect illegal money laundering. The Libertarians, concerned about invasion of privacy, alerted 11,000 members via e-mail and set up a Web site, through which visitors could e-mail the FDIC.
The regulators withdrew the proposal in March, citing “an unprecedented number of comments”—more than 250,000, most in the form of e-mail generated by the Libertarians’ Web site. It is extremely rare for the FDIC to receive more than a few hundred comments on even the most controversial proposals.
At the same time, “it seems that every activist group of any significance has set up a web site, established e-mail as a primary communications device and learned to use the Internet as a key research tool,” says Price. “Together, these steps have diminished—though not eliminated—the advantage enjoyed by organizations with sophisticated Washington operations.”
Not everyone believes that the democratization of the public affairs process is an unmitigated benefit. Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press warns, “If you have an abiding interest in a narrow problem, you now have a much greater capacity to track what’s being said about the problem or what’s going on with regard to the problem than you ever had before. It’s for the better in the case of giving people the opportunity to exchange views and come together with like-minded people. It’s for the worse in that 10 years ago, if you were a screwball who believed a whole set of wacky ideas, you felt relatively isolated—you now have the means of connecting with hundreds if not thousands of like-minded screwballs.”
The report also chides corporations for being slower than activist groups to take advantage of the Internet. “I think public interest groups have done a fantastic job of utilizing the Internet—environmental groups in particular—whereas business is way behind,” says Faye Gorman-Graul, director of Dow Corning’s government relations office in Washington. “Look at company Web sites and you rarely see public policy positions.”
As for the future, the Internet will play an increasingly important role in corporate public affairs, but it won’t replace traditional face-to-face communications, nor will it lead to the demise of traditional political institutions.
Says Price, “Even if all Americans get linked to the Internet, they won’t tear down their national and state capitols. Despite some digital visionaries’ dreams, there will be no virtual legislatures with lawmakers conducting all their legislative business from their home PCs. Neither will there be direct democracy by an online plebiscite”