Monday, August 18, 2008

Using the Internet to Hold the Government Responsible

A few weeks ago, I wrote in my column about the inexplicable efforts by some in Congress to crack down on the ability of congressmen to communicate with their constituents through the use of new, Internet based technologies. These technologies allow congressmen to bypass the media and communicate directly with the people.

The importance of this type of communication could not be better illustrated than with the recent efforts of some congressmen to bring attention to the fact that Congress leadership is not allowing an important vote on expanding domestic oil production. As part of a demonstration against this inaction, the congressmen have been holding ongoing protests on the floor of the House of Representatives. This protest has received very little coverage from the media, and leadership has made sure the C-Span cameras do not show the protests. By sending updates on Internet social media outlets, the congressmen have been allowed to bypass traditional media and report the events as they unfold.

Hopefully, any effort to crack down on these new technologies has been suspended for now. But make no mistake, these technologies will give people more insight into and knowledge about how the government works (or does not work), and will allow them to hold government more responsible than ever.

The Internet also plays an important role in allowing people to share information and to work together to understand what is going on in government. One of the interesting developments along this line has been the emergence of an Internet message board right here in Oklahoma known as the McAlester Watercooler.

This web site resides in the heart of "Gene Stipe Territory," an area where locals were likely pressured to refrain from speaking out in the past due to fear that they would be retaliated against by the many individuals in power who were allied with Stipe and his political empire.

With the advent of the Internet, people now have a forum to which they can go and talk about government affairs without fear that their identities will be disclosed or that they will face retaliation by the powerful people of the community.

Those who are acquainted with some of my experiences as a public official know that I have always been a strong opponent of those who spread lies and untruths anonymously. I am a firm believer in the important laws that allow those who are victimized by the dishonest to pursue a civil action in order to hold them responsible.

Last week, however, the actions taken by the district attorney for Pittsburg County were, in my view, an attempt to intimidate those who are using the forum to discuss local affairs. Instead of filing a civil action, the district attorney appears to have filed a criminal complaint of libel based on comments by the users of the message board. And now the owner of the web site is being subpoenaed for the identities of those posting on the board as part of that criminal action. This action appears to be little more than an inappropriate use of power in an attempt to quell dissent in the age-old tradition of southeast Oklahoma power politics.

I remain confident, however, that attempts to discourage Internet use and thereby to hold the government responsible, will be ineffective.

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