It may be a while before the people who run the U.S. House of Representatives’ Web service forget the week of September 29, 2008. That’s when the enormous public interest in the financial bailout legislation, coupled with unprecedented numbers of e-mails to House members, effectively crashed www.house.gov. On Tuesday of that week, a day after the House voted down the first version of the bailout bill, House administrators had to limit the number of incoming e-mails processed by the site’s “Write Your Representative” function. Demand for the text of the legislation was so intense that third-party sites that track Congress were also swamped. GovTrack.us, a private site that produces a user-friendly guide to congressional legislation, had to shut down. Its owner, Josh Tauberer, posted a message reading, “So many people are searching for the economic relief bill that GovTrack can’t handle it. Take a break and come back later when the world cools off.”
Once people did get their eyes on the bill’s text, they tore into it with zeal. Nearly a thousand comments were posted between September 22 and October 5 on PublicMarkup.org, a site that enables the public to examine and debate the text of proposed legislation set up by the Sunlight Foundation, an advocacy group for government transparency (full disclosure: I am a senior technology adviser to Sunlight). Meanwhile, thousands of bloggers zeroed in on the many earmarks in the bill, such as the infamous reduction in taxes for wooden-arrow manufacturers. Others focused on members who voted for the bill, analyzing their campaign contributors and arguing that Wall Street donations influenced their vote.
The explosion of public engagement online around the bailout bill signals something profound: the beginning of a new age of political transparency. As more people go online to find, create, and share vital political information with one another; as the cost of creating, combining, storing, and sharing information drops toward zero; and as the tools for analyzing data and connecting people become more powerful and easier to use, politics and governance alike are inexorably becoming more open.
We are heading toward a world in which one-click universal disclosure, real-time reporting by both professionals and amateurs, dazzling data visualizations that tell compelling new stories, and the people’s ability to watch their government from below (what the French call sousveillance) are becoming commonplace. Despite the detour of the Bush years, citizens will have more opportunity at all levels of government to take an active part in understanding and participating in the democratic decisions that affect their lives.
Log On, Speak Out
The low-cost, high-speed, always-on Internet is changing the ecology of how people consume and create political information. The Pew Internet & American Life Project estimates that roughly 75 percent of all American adults, or about 168 million people, go online or use e-mail at least occasionally. A digital divide still haunts the United States, but among Americans aged eighteen to forty-nine, that online proportion is closer to 90 percent. Television remains by far the dominant political information source, but in October 2008, a third of Americans said their main provider of political information was the Internet—more than triple the number from four years earlier, according to another Pew study. Nearly half of eighteen-to-twenty-nine-year-olds said the Internet was their main source of political info.
Meanwhile, we’re poised for a revolution in participation, not just in consumption, thanks to the Web. People talk, share, and talk back online. According to yet another study by Pew, this one in December 2007, one in five U.S. adults who use the Internet reported sharing something online that they created themselves; one in three say they’ve posted a comment or rated something online.
People are eager for access to information, and public officials who try to stand in the way will discover that the Internet responds to information suppression by routing around the problem. Consider the story of a site you’ve never seen, ChicagoWorksForYou.com. In June 2005, a team of Web developers working for the city of Chicago began developing a site that would take the fifty-five different kinds of service requests that flow into the city’s 311 database—items like pothole repairs, tree-trimming, garbage-can placement, building permits, and restaurant inspections—and enable users to search by address and “map what’s happening in your neighborhood.” The idea was to showcase city services at the local level.