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The Internet Goes to Washington

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As the Internet grows and brings more people online, those of us online become curious about who is available on the Internet. Services for finding specific people have never impressed me, so public announcements and word of mouth are still the best way to get in touch with someone famous who has appeared on the nets. Luckily this has been happening a lot recently.

Of course, the most publicized Internet arrival is that of the President and Vice President of the United States, Bill Clinton and Al Gore. To increase communication with the White House, the Clinton administration has set up an Internet site, whitehouse.gov, along with addresses for both Clinton and Gore (listed below).

Now, it's a good bet that neither of them reads the email sent to those accounts. I have trouble keeping up with the my own email, and that's only in the range of 30 to 70 messages a day. When you consider the hundreds if not thousands of messages that must pour in every day, I'd rather not have the leaders of the country spending their time reading email, and heaven forbid, becoming Usenet junkies or spending hours trying to create a saxophone with ASCII graphics.

For the moment, the staff will merely track how many messages are received, along with the subjects of the messages. Receipts will be sent, but they won't be tailored to your specific message for the time being. The White House staff have made that a goal for the end of the year, and rumor has it that they have commissioned MIT to create software with a sufficient level of artificial intelligence that it can reply to the incoming messages. Could be interesting.

Bill Clinton -- president@whitehouse.gov
Al Gore -- vice.president@whitehouse.gov

House of Representatives -- In an effort not to be shown up, the House of Representatives (the second and larger body of the bicameral American Congress, for readers unfamiliar with the U.S. governmental system) announced a pilot program to provide email access to a small number of the representatives. Representatives taking part in the pilot program include (followed by their state abbreviation and district): Jay Dickey (AR-07), Sam Gejdenson (CT-02), Newt Gingrich (GA-06), George Miller (CA-07), Charlie Rose (NC-07), Fortney Pete Stark (CA-13), and Melvin Watt (NC-12). Gee, I wonder why Jesse Helms isn't included.

Unfortunately, the House program suffers from the close-mindedness that comes from believing arbitrary boundaries have inherent meaning, especially in terms of the political patchwork method of defining districts these days. For the moment, if you wish to communicate with your representative via the Internet, you must first send a snail mail postcard to your representative's office, including on it your Internet email address along with your name and snail mail address. The press release says, "This process will allow Members to identify an electronic mail user as his or her constituent." This bothers me, if only because I strongly suspect that special interest lobbying groups can gain access to representatives whether or not they happen to be from the proper district in the proper state. The point of the Internet is not to restrict the flow of communication.

Once they've figured out how the pilot program works, they plan to make any necessary modifications and then open it up to other members of the House of Representatives who wish to participate. All in all, it feels half-hearted. I could be wrong, and I hope I am, but the entire program smells of something dreamed up by people who don't have a clue what the Internet is all about.

To receive more information on this program, send email to:

congress@hr.house.gov

(Which, by the way, is a strange use of the domain addressing system. Something like info@house.congress.gov would make more sense in a meaningful hierarchical domain system.)

You can send comments about the service to:

comments@hr.house.gov

Online Congressional Hearing -- More promising than the pilot program is the announcement of the first Congressional Hearing to be held over a computer network. Appropriately enough, the hearing is on "The Role of Government in Cyberspace" and will physically take place on 26-Jul-93 in the Grand Ballroom of the National Press Club in Washington, DC. The hearing and an open house later that day are open to the public, but more interestingly, the hearing is open to the Internet at large.

The Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance will use 30 SPARCstations in the hearing room to allow everyone present to use email, Gopher, the WAIS, and the World Wide Web for research into the topics at hand. I hope everything is up and working that day! Some witnesses will testify remotely, sending audio and video over the Internet.

This is a chance to get your ideas into the public record, since an email address has been established for anyone on the Internet to use before and during the hearing. If you have ideas or comments on the role of government in the Information Age, send them to the address below. Topics you might address include:

  • Should government make public data available for free on the Internet?

  • Who should pay to build and maintain the Internet?

  • How should the Internet be used in the daily workings of the government?

  • How would you use the Internet to communicate with the government?

  • Should the FBI, CIA, and NSA keep their prying fingers away from the Internet? (OK, so that 's begging the question.)

  • And I'm sure you can think of plenty of other related topics.

The important thing to realize is that we of the Internet community have to let the U.S. Congress know that millions of us care about the Internet. It's not enough to complain every time some new method of taxing modem users or selling off the Internet comes around. For many of us, the Internet is an integral part of our lives and livelihoods, and we must convey that sense of importance.

I'll admit my bias. I want the Internet to be recognized as a community in its own right, on an equal footing with all the communities made up by arbitrary geographical or political boundaries. Perhaps for the first time in the history of the world, people have come together in a community based on mutual intellectual need without concern for race, sex, religion, or location (for the moment we'll conveniently ignore the wealth, but more and more projects such as the Seattle Public Library's public terminals are making the Internet available to those who can't afford computers). I'll argue that just as physical communities of people are considered worth preserving, protecting, maintaining, and funding, so is the virtual community of the Internet.

Send any comments, suggestions, and opinions (no flames, please, remember that we're trying to paint a positive picture of the Internet) to:

congress@town.hall.org

I gather that you won't necessarily get a response from this address, but another address has been set up where you can communicate with a human about the hearing. To talk to that person about the hearing, send email to:

hearing-info@town.hall.org

And to give credit where credit is due, support for this event comes from Sun Microsystems, O'Reilly & Associates, UUNET Technologies, ARPA, BBN Communications, the National Press Club, Xerox PARC, and many others. And hey, if anyone goes to this event and wants to write an article on what happens, let me know.

-- Information from:
U.S. Government propaganda

 

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