Technology and politics, long separate domains, are converging in this year's Presidential campaign. Howard Dean's Internet-fueled rise was the harbinger of a much wider penetration of the Web into politics. The Internet is transforming the way campaigns find volunteers and contributions while easing the way for new ideas and new candidates. At the same time, the Internet is raising tough new issues about regulating campaigns.
On the plus side, the Internet addresses one big complaint about the U.S. political system: the lack of participation, especially by young people. Compared with the traditional image of political volunteers stuffing envelopes, joining a group of like-minded people through the Web is much more appealing to Americans who enjoy communicating online. Thus, MoveOn.org, a Berkeley (Calif.) online advocacy group formed in 1998, has 2 million e-mail members. The Internet also is opening up the political process, providing another avenue for candidates to raise funds and develop a following. Dean raised $19 million in online contributions, enabling him to take the early lead in the Democratic primaries.
But it's clear that Internet politics need some regulation. After years of campaign finance reform, the Net is a whole new frontier for out-of-control advertising. For example, Web political ads are not yet subject to the same regulations as those on TV, such as the requirement to include the candidate's voice. Similarly, the ban on TV advertising sponsored by advocacy groups during the final two months of the campaign may not apply. There's no reason for such an exemption.
It's going to be a delicate task extending campaign-finance reform to the Internet without losing the benefits of openness. But without such a move, the Internet will fall prey to the same sleaze that infects traditional politics.