Your Voices Count: Net Activism and Real Politics

By Howard Rheingold

It's not just money at stake, but the power that money can buy.

Most citizens, including myself, don't understand what Congressional regulation and deregulation of cyberspace is really about. I do know that we better understand that today's legislation about telecommunications will influence the kind of government we'll have, the cost of communication services, and the kind of business we will be allowed to do for decades to come. It's not just money at stake, but the power that money can buy.

Porno on the Internet is a sideshow for the yokels to gape at while the real dirty business goes down inside the beltway. We all know by now that we can download dirty pictures from the Internet. How many people know how many tens millions of dollars have been paid by major telecommunications companies to the campaign organizations of which Senators? Which issue do you think is more important to the long-term welfare of our democracy?

The move to control cyberspace is a power grab.

Many-to-many communications, if enough of us learn to use it properly, might enable citizens to amplify our power to speak to our representatives loudly enough. You can't really blame the lobbyists for dispensing money on behalf of their employers' interests. It is up to us, the citizens, to find ways to speak loudly, too. It's time for everybody, not just the technology enthusiasts, to use this tool for democracy the Internet provides, before the right to assemble freely in cyberspaces is taken away from us through monopoly, surveillance, and censorship

Citizens and public-spirited news organizations in San Jose California intend to use the Internet and other media in a project called Your Voices Count, aimed at helping the community address the issue of how money influences the California State Legislature. The San Jose Mercury News launched the movement with a front-page story at the same time that ABC affiliate KNTV broadcast the first report of a three-part news series. Together with a citizens group, the California Voter Foundation, they also put up a website and involved a message board on America Online. The newspaper and television reports focused on the influence wielded by free-spending special interest lobbyists in the State legislature. Citizens were invited to contact the paper if they wanted to get involved. From two hundred contacts, seventy five citizens ended up forming the core group. The volunteers, with support from sponsoring organizations have set up a bill-tracking team of online citizens to report on campaign finance reform and special interest legislation.

"This started out as traditional investigative journalism and now we're leveraging that traditional reporting in an untraditional way," said Jerry Ceppos, executive editor of the Mercury News. "We're combining good, aggressive investigative journalism with the somewhat new idea of helping citizens find their own answers to problems."

Your Voices Count will continue through February 1996.

Kim Alexander, executive director of the nonprofit California Voter Foundation, says "It's not enough to simply tell people that something is wrong in Sacramento. People also need the tools to address these problems. New communication technologies - particularly the Internet - offer powerful resources that may help level the playing field between monied interests and citizens."

For more information, e-mail or phone 408 920 5993. (A different project , sponsored by Mother Jones magazine, includes a database tracking the sources of campaign contributions for candidates.)

Alexander emphasized: "We finally have the tools we need to make our democracy work the way it was intended - tools that allow people to have easy and immediate access to the kind of information that allows them to participate in public life in a meaningful way. Unfortunately, this opportunity may be lost because people with big fears and small minds are seeking to impose restrictions that would severely limit the opportunity for the Internet to be a democratic tool."

Last modifiedSeptember 24, 1995.
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