The Limits of Online Political Participation

While I was getting ready for work this last week, WCBS880 in New York had a story on a feature it called "Dishin' Digital."  It was about a new web site that tracks the way candidates in the upcoming 2008 election are using the internet. 

I checked out the site, which describes its purpose:

The 2008 election will be the first where the Internet will play a central role, not only in terms of how the campaigns use technology, but also in how voter-generated content affects its course. plans to track all these changes in real-time, covering everything from campaign websites, online advertising and email lists to the postings on YouTube and who's got the fastest growing group of friends on MySpace.

It's a very active site and the range of ways that the internet will be used seems almost without limits. 

However there are very real limitations.

It struck me that Howard Dean's use of the internet was credited in bringing many young voters and millions of small contributors into the political process.  Internet use has certainly grown tremendously since then but we must also be very aware of how many people will be shut out of this new democratic (lower case "d") discussion. 

Only 11.4% of household with income less than $30,000 have broadband subscriptions.  Only 17% of rural areas subscribe. Only 31% of African Americans use broadband.  What does this say about who can weigh in on these discussions and what kind of feedback these candidates will get?  Whole swaths of the population are now left out in the same way property ownership, sex, race and illiteracy left millions out of the political participation in previous generations.

This powerful method for drawing millions more into the political process cannot be realized until we have universally available, high speed internet for all Americans. We must make sure  these same politicians who are now using the internet so boldly in their own self interest, will also take up the campaign to make sure that the US develops strong, comprehensive national broadband policy.

Laura Unger is President of CWA Local 1150 in New York, NY

CWA Local 1150