Netted Politics

E-visionaries with a yen for politics have long rhapsodized about the Internet's effect on democracy: Politics will be opened up, with a level playing field for underfunded candidates.

Indeed, politicians are already making use of the Net's possibilities. Candidate websites offer profiles and positions on issues, as well as ask for volunteers and funds. A few candidates use e-mail to ask for votes, which is a big money saver. But it can also land them in political hot water, as California gubernatorial hopeful Bill Jones found when he tried it and was blasted as a "spammer."

But in fairness, people should make a distinction between an exercise in political communication, unsolicited as it may be, and the ceaseless commercial e-pitches known as "spam." Is an e-mail from a candidate any more intrusive than his or her knock on your front door?

Still, there are possible negatives in politics going digital. Eli Noam, head of Columbia University's Institute for Tele-Information, has two:

• The opening up of politics to less well-heeled candidates may be short-lived. Novice candidates can inexpensively set up websites and try to build a following. But when more Net users get faster connections, with more multimedia, the cost of staying on the playing field will go up sharply. Incumbents and other well-funded candidates will still have their edge.

• Dirty campaign tactics could get even more negative on the Net. As the flow of campaign information surges in cyberspace, the most piercing voices will have a better chance of being heard. Consider the campaign for governor in Alabama. The candidates, incumbent Democrat Don Siegelman and Republican challenger Bob Riley, are lobbing bombs from websites set up just for that purpose, calling each other "liar" or "tax cheat."

Of course, good taste can find a place even on the free-wheeling Net. And as more voters get used to the idea that that's where they'll find campaign information, their own sense of balance and fairness will sort through the verbiage.

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