Government by Inter-Newt

Dinty W. Moore
March 01, 1996

In my quest to unearth some deeper truth about the new electronic culture, perhaps the only claim I heard more often than the one about how our interpersonal relationships will be forever transformed was the one about how the Internet will radically alter our form of government.

The Government Transformation Forecast goes like this: our representatives in Washington have to this point been a distant, privileged, inaccessible elite. But soon — once you, and I, and every loyal citizen with a modem begin forcefully and instantaneously telling our congresspeople what we think, what we want, and when we want it — the direction of our nation will be firmly in our hands — safe, secure, just the way Thomas Jefferson originally intended.

Sounds good, but it is true?

The federal government is using E-mail big time. All House offices, in fact, have access to internal electronic mail, and last year they were sending messages back and forth at a dizzying rate of 6,066 a day. By early 1995, about 40 House members also had "public mailboxes," open to the voters. For instance, georgia6@hr.house.gov is Newt Gingrich.

Neat, huh? You can E-mail Newt Gingrich.

Except we are talking about Washington, right? If you send electronic mail to Newt or anyone else, what you will get back is a form letter from an auto-responder. An auto-responder is a bit of software sorcery that receives your message, takes note of your return address, and responds, all with no human intervention. The auto-response begins like this:

Thank you for contacting me through the House of Representatives Constituent Electronic Mail System (CEMS). I am pleased to be a part of this effort to offer citizens a quick and efficient way to communicate with the representatives in Congress. "Quick and efficient," of course, is a matter of opinion.

The auto-response is certainly quick, taking as few as five seconds on a slow mail day; but that's it, electronically speaking. If you come from the representative's home district, then maybe three or four months down the line someone might read your message and send you, through the U.S. Mail, another letter, saying, "Though the representative doesn't necessarily agree with your views ... he greatly values your opinions."

This bears repeating: The electronic mail we send our representatives gets answered through the U.S. Postal Service, that behemoth of a bureaucracy that E-mail is supposed to gloriously sidestep.

Over at the Senate, maybe 12 senators have public mailboxes. Senator Edward M. Kennedy is one (senator@kennedy.senate.gov), and his office is clearly at the forefront of computer networking. So what is Kennedy doing with the Net?

"In May of 1993," explains Chris Casey, the Senator's Technology Policy Advisor, "Senator Kennedy's office began posting the Senator's press releases and statements . . ."

He had much more to say, but I found myself distracted by a simple question: if the Internet only gives us greater access to our elected officials' press releases and public statements, and not to our elected officials, how is it going to change the world?

Though our elected officials are eager to use the Internet to send thrilling notices of their day-to-day accomplishments, it is beginning to seem clear that they have this problem with the messages we send them. Why?

Actually, there are some good reasons. The folks in Washington are very concerned about what is called "spoof" mail.

"Security is a big problem," my House source explained, "in and out. Every which way. Who is sending? Who is responding? Where does the mail really come from?"

If I knew more about computers, I could forge my address, sending E-mail to the White House that appeared to be coming from somewhere else. Or a clever hacker could send messages to certain people that would appear to be from Bill Clinton. The opportunities for abuse are staggering.

Senator Kennedy's office worries about another potential problem — electronic mailbox stuffing.

"It is very common for interest groups to use mass mailing campaigns of postcards, letters, telegrams, and so on in order to try to send a message to a member of Congress by inundating them with mail," Casey noted. "Using E-mail, that won't take any organized campaigns."

A lobby would no longer need volunteers with writer's cramp, they could just program a computer. The machine could send thousands of messages an hour, all of them perhaps randomized to seem as if they are coming from thousands of different electronic addresses. All it takes is some cleverness and a plug.

In this instance, though, the auto-responder offers a hidden benefit, explains Casey, "by giving back as good as we get." Send 5,000 messages to Senator Kennedy, you see, and you will get 5,000 in return.

Do you see how e-mail is changing everything?

Excerpted from The Emperor's Virtual Clothes: The Naked Truth About Internet Culture (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1995). Dinty W. Moore is an assistant professor of English at Penn State's Altoona Campus.

Last Updated March 01, 1996