Political expression on the Internet bumps into special-interestgridlock


You've got mail! Lots and lots of mail.

That is the message United States senators have been hearing lately. E-mail traffic has risen to several times the norm as the Senate hears the impeachment charges against President Clinton. Meanwhile, the Senate's Web site has been hammered - four times as much traffic as normal. The result has been one very backlogged system.

Several media outlets reported last week that Senate e-mail had gone from about 70,000 pieces a day to around 500,000, a figure confirmed by the sergeant-at-arms office, the department responsible for dealing with the Senate's e-mail.

This resulted in an e-mail backlog last week that ranged from a few hours to several days. As a result, personnel were encouraged to avoid sending e-mail for critical documents and to rely on faxes and regular delivery services.

Automatic responses to e-mails had also been turned off - probably the one good thing the backlogged system accomplished. Officials in the sergeant-at-arms office say they are in the process of upgrading the Senate's ability to deal with the crush of e-mail opinions.

So is this the sign that the Internet is finally starting to mature as a vehicle for political expression? Maybe. And maybe not.

Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura credits his Web site with being a major part of his surprise victory, although some online pundits have said the governor's claim may be more hype than hope.

A recent report issued by the Pew Research Center on Public Policy showed that, along with overall Internet usage growing, many more people looked for election news online in 1998 - 11 million as opposed to 4 million in 1996.

But among regular Net users, the percentage of people who sought election news online dropped to 15 percent from 22 percent in 1996.

Dianne Lynch, the chair of the School of Journalism at St. Michael's College in Vermont, and a regular commentator on Internet issues for the Monitor's Electronic Edition and ABCNews.com, says the Internet as a viable political medium is still in a "treading water" stage, but that is more the fault of politicians than Internet users.

"Politicians don't answer e-mail, or you get an automated response. The opportunity to interact with your representatives just isn't there yet. Not to mention the irony that the people who are passing laws right now about how the Internet will be used in the future, don't know how to use the medium."

In reality, Ms. Lynch says, the increase in the Senate's e-mail is "probably the result of coordinated 'e-mail in' campaigns by big lobby groups, and not a massive expression of political will by the average online citizen."

One such lobby group is the American Family Association - a group that supports removing the president from office - which recently urged its members to call or e-mail their representatives and Republican Senate leaders as soon as possible.

It would appear that many did so.

Tom Regan is the associate editor of The Christian Science Monitor's Electronic Edition. You can e-mail him at tom@csmonitor.com

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