`Cyber-Citizens' Go On Line to Monitor Their Government
WHEN Jim Busby wants to see what's happening at the Texas legislature, he doesn't go to the Capitol. He goes to his computer.
Using a modem, Mr. Busby, who works for the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, ties into an electronic bulletin board that includes the full text of more than 2,200 bills filed by state lawmakers.
Welcome to activism via cyberspace. As government plugs into the information highway, voters and activists are learning how to use information that was previously either very expensive or simply unavailable.
At the federal level, Congress has dumped its file cabinets into cyberspace through the new service known as THOMAS. The text of bills, Library of Congress access, and other federal data is available through the new service.
States are scrambling to follow Washington's lead. Last month, Texas joined California, Hawaii, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming in providing free legislative information through the Internet. Other states are quickly following suit.
Josh Goldstein of the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington says the new services are allowing citizens to participate in government ``at a level at which only lobbyists and special interests have been able to before now. This opening up is really allowing citizens back into government.''
The free services are popular. THOMAS, the system run by Congress, gets more than 20,000 file requests every day. Texas's new service averages 600 people per day, and Minnesota tallies 800 people a day.
Students are benefiting from the avalanche of on-line information. Brian Roberts, an associate dean at the University of Texas, calls the new government resources ``an absolute boon for students.'' Mr. Roberts predicts that over the next year, students in government, political science, and public-policy classes will use the Internet as a regular part of their course work.
Some already are. Steve Schneider, of the State University of New York's Institute of Technology at Utica, requires students in his politics class to retrieve government documents through the Internet and the World Wide Web. He says the Internet allows students ``to actually see the raw materials of politics.''
In addition, Mr. Schneider says the Internet makes teaching government cheaper and more interesting. ``Students could always get text from a White House press conference, but they weren't doing so because it was too expensive,'' he says. ``Now they can get it the day after it happens, at no charge.''
For activists like Busby, the new legislative information puts his group on equal footing with richer special interests and lobbyists. Prior to the state's free service, citizens either had to photocopy each bill individually at the Capitol or pay $900 for the equivalent of a season ticket to each legislative session.
Last week, Busby spotted a bill that could lower water-quality standards in Texas. He composed a letter and broadcast it via e-mail to dozens of people on the group's mailing list, asking them to attend a committee hearing on the bill and contact their legislators. ``Now, in a matter of minutes, we can reach people all over the state who are interested in our issues,'' Busby says.
Chris Cortez, of the Texas Alliance for Human Needs, a coalition of groups that provide services to the poor and homeless, also welcomes the service. ``Texas is a big state and many of our organizations don't have access to the legislative activity here in Austin,'' she says. ``Through the Internet, we can include those groups in the process. So instead of coming to Austin, or using expensive long-distance calls or faxes to contact their legislators, they can express their opinions through e-mail.''