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A Little Help From My ... Friends?

Hey, it worked with Linux. Enlisting the aid of countless strangers is a strategy that's catching on.

Biotech at the Barricades

Some would say the avant-garde is dead.This avant-garde wants to live forever.

Dharma Geeks

Sure, there's Buddhism on the Net, but maybe the Net itself is Buddhist.

Revisions of Slavery

What the Web accomplishes that neither Hollywood filmmakers nor PBS documentarists can.

Liberty and Linux for All

Microsoft's worst nightmare may not be a courtroom in Washington, D.C.

Everything for Sale

In the world of online auctions, anything (and everything) goes on the block.

The Numbers Game

Baseball's days as our national pastime may be numbered.


On the neurological underpinnings of geekdom.

It's the Medium, Stupid

Amidst all the clamor over the Starr Report, one Webzine reminds us what journalism on the Net was supposed to promise.

Psychotherapy on the Net

Boldly going where Freud never went.

For more, see the complete Web Citations Index.
Digital Sunlight, Digital Shadows
November 25, 1998

Digital sunlight When Tony Raymond, a technology consultant, left the Federal Election Commission in 1996, he opened a door that had been barred to the public. The door led to the treasure rooms and accounting books of American political campaigns. Raymond created a Web site that gave voters a view of the treasure by allowing them to type a name, hit a button, and see how much money a person or corporation had donated to whom.

Raymond had left the FEC after working there for seventeen years. He had encountered resistance within the agency to the idea of offering campaign-contribution information in an easy-to-read format. (Agency officials said they simply didn't have the resources to set up the online system.) Raymond's Web site went up two weeks after he quit; he wanted to show the world that it could be done.

Unlike resources such as the FEC and the American University Campaign Finance Web sites, which made available large data files that then had to be manipulated and analyzed offline, Raymond's site made the quick review of contributions easy -- and by this year the idea had caught on: non-profit groups, government agencies, and political groups all established similar sites. In the month before the 1998 general election, for example, the nation's two largest campaign-finance tracking agencies, the FEC and the California Secretary of State, each posted on the Internet lists of last-minute contributions. (Huge sums of money flow into campaigns in the final days before the election, but in the past the microfilm and thick binders that contained all of the details of this flow were kept in rooms that only determined reporters and campaign aides entered. Often these contributions -- which constitute a large proportion of the money donated -- go unreported to the public until after the elections.) Other organizations offered searchable online databases for the first time this year, too, among them the Compaq/California Voter Foundation database and The Freedom Project, which created a database that shows the flow of PAC money in Washington.

By September of this year, twelve states -- including California, Florida, Illinois, and Texas -- had passed laws that required election authorities, starting in the next two years, to post on the Internet campaign-contribution data for state candidates. These laws hinged on the argument that with disclosure comes reform; their opponents complained that making information readily available would violate the privacy of contributors, and that candidates who could not afford computers to meet the filing requirements would be disqualified. Online security was also a concern.

Reformers argued, however, that shining "digital sunlight" on the campaign books would automatically make campaigns more honest. But that light falls upon the American political machine, which is known for casting a long shadow. The threat of disclosure may keep some campaign managers more mindful of their sources of cash, but it will drive others to work harder to hide their money.

In fact, the digital shadow loomed large this year. A non-profit group in Washington, the Center for Responsive Politics, posted the travel records of members of Congress on the Web. Shortly after this online database appeared, the Clerk of the House changed the House's record-keeping methods for the travel reports. Before the Web resource existed, the clerk's office released an easy-to-read packet of the travel documents. Now, according to Tony Raymond (who for a while after he left the FEC worked for the CRP) the reports are listed alphabetically by member, so that the documents are held in 435 separate files. Whatever the official reason for the change in record-keeping methods, it suddenly made the new easy-to-read reports hard to read -- at a time suspiciously close to their Internet debut.

In the mid-1970s, in what may prove to be a low-tech parallel to the times ahead, Alan Robbins, a former California state senator, demonstrated great ingenuity in his effort to baffle disclosure requirements: he filled out his disclosure forms in blue pencil, ensuring that the information could not be copied. (Robbins later was convicted of a bribery charge in an unrelated case.) Because even the most progressive states are one or two years away from posting all of their campaign-contribution data, the high-tech equivalent of Robbins's blue pencil has not yet appeared. But it surely will.

Voters will teethe in coming years on better information than they have ever sampled. Their appetite may grow, and ultimately the public demand may produce a better dragnet to catch shady political practices. Until then, electronic disclosure will confirm a precept that applies equally to the lowest tenement and the loftiest Congressional office: Shine a light, and the roaches will scatter.

--Rebecca Fairley Raney

Join the conversation in the Technology & Digital Culture conference of Post & Riposte.

More on Technology and Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Rebecca Fairley Raney has been writing about electronic democracy since 1996, primarily for CyberTimes, the technology section of The New York Times on the Web. She has also written about technology and the Internet for Writer's Digest and several print sections of The New York Times.
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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