ONLINE POLITICS TOPIC of DISCUSSION at TEXAS STATE CAPITOL
AUSTIN - The Advisory Council on the Digital Economy held a joint public testimony session with the Democracy Online Project National Task Force today, Wednesday, June 28, 2000, in the Senate Chamber.
The Advisory Council on the Digital Economy was created in 1999 by Lt. Governor Rick Perry to advise the State on a range of technology-related issues, including how to utilize the Internet as a tool to allow for greater public participation in the democratic process. The Democracy Online Project of the Graduate School of Political Management of The George Washington University, funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, is a two-year research and advocacy initiative launched in October of 1998. The project's mission is to promote the development of online politics in a manner that upholds democratic principles and values.
Senator Rodney Ellis, a member of the Advisory Council on the Digital Economy, welcomed local and out-of-state participants to Austin. Richard White, co-chair of the Democracy Online Project National Task Force and a former congressman from Seattle, questioned in his opening remarks whether the Internet represents a great potential or a great hype. Whatever it is at the moment, all participants agreed that if the Internet can be as successful in creating "a marketplace of ideas" as computers were for the economic and financial markets, then democracy would be tremendously enhanced.
The first panel focused on the role of the high-tech sector in community politics. The members discussed whether the growth of the high-tech industry is compatible with the values of a socially and environmentally sustainable community. The invited testimony opened with Gary Chapman, Director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin. He said that the shortage of skilled workers, the main problem of the industry today, lets those who have the skills choose where they want to live and work. This mostly young and well paid workforce looks for amenities such as music, a thriving night-life, natural places for individual sports, and the opportunities that start-ups and venture companies offer. In the past companies chose a place based on the taxes they had to pay, now they go where there are workers to hire. Austin is such a place, but this economic boom also creates problems like gentrification, that is, high-paid workers driving housing prices up and decreasing diversity in the community.
Robin Rather spoke next. A long-time environmental activist, she was elected three times to preside over the Save our Springs Alliance, Austin's leading environmental advocacy group. She is currently CEO of Mindwave Research, an Internet-based consulting company located in Austin. Like Chapman, Rather is also concerned about the growth-related problems the economic boom has created. We have to engage the technology industry to help solve these problems if we don't want to become like San Jose, she added. She said the alignment of the three E's --Economy, Environment and social Equity -- is crucial in a healthy society. And although Rather says only 25 percent of Austin thinks the high-tech industry cares about the community, she believes the high-tech and low-tech communities want the same things: good schools, a clean environment and a digital bridge between people, not a digital divide, where people may be shut out of the high-tech revolution due to income level or ethnicity.
Mary Beth Rogers, President and CEO of the Capital of Texas Public Telecommunications Council which runs KLRU-TV, talked about local public television stations as facilitators of community discussion and deliberation. Their purpose and plan is to recreate the public square in this digital age, to enhance culture, education and citizenship. She also addressed issues relative to the digital divide and how people marginalized from technology are unable to enjoy the benefits the Internet can bring, like education and online healthcare. She is concerned about the future of our school-age generation, in a state where 25 percent of algebra teachers are not certified in the subject they teach.
Paula Fracasso, Executive Director of the Austin Entrepreneurs Foundation, recommended for the new technology industry to assign 10 percent of its profits to solve community issues. This would create a real revolution where everybody would benefit, she added. She also encouraged the state government to act now while we are enjoying an economic boom, to address the crucial social issues that contribute to the digital divide.
The first panel also included Kay Hammer, President/CEO of Evolutionary Technologies International; Holli Thier, Co-president of the League of Women Voters (LWV) of San Francisco; and Vanessa Abernathy, member of the LWV of Philadelphia. Thier talked about the problems they face in San Francisco --another high-tech community-- such as a housing shortage, stiff competition for employees, and the resentment that the dot-coms and high prices have created in the low-tech community. The Internet has changed business but not politics, she said, and we have to find a way to use it for political education and discussion. Public participation among the youth is at its lowest, and only one in five of those between 18 and 24 years of age vote. Although this is a population group that tends to use the Internet a lot, they do not consult it for political education purposes. She talked about the Internet potential to allow people to register to vote and vote on-line, and to create a wide public discussion about campaign-finance reform and a more open government. Another way for the Internet to have an impact on local politics would be if citizens could find a website where all the candidates post their platforms. The panel had conflicting opinions about whether the Internet is conducive to public deliberation, but everyone agreed is a great tool for public political education.
The second panel was called Civic Engagement in a Wired City, and explored ways of using the Internet to motivate individuals to become more responsible citizens. The panel members were Jim Fishkin, Chairman of the UT Department of Government; Ana Sisnett, Executive Director of Austin FreeNet; Jason Fellman, President of FG Squared; Rod Hart, Professor of the Department of Communication Studies at UT Austin; Mary Howarth, member of LWV of Rochester, Michigan; and Jane Gross, member of LWV of Broward County, Florida. Austin FreeNet is a non-profit corporation that provides training and public access to the Internet for all Austin area residents, especially those who don't have computers at home. The Austin Public Library is one of the places with computers allowing access for everyone. Sisnett said the Internet is used mainly for individuals to communicate with each other, to look for jobs or study, and, as of today, cannot by itself provoke political participation. She called for a responsive government strategy to spread the high-tech benefits to all levels of people. She also advised for this kind of meeting to be open to the community in general, and not only the experts.
Jason Fellman, a 27 year old accomplished musician and five year president of his web agency, says the Internet will provide more government accountability and make voting easier. Interest groups can become more leveled, he says, because everyone is able to reach the same amount of people. He talked about how important it is for schools to be wired and said that teachers should be the best paid workers in today's society. He asked for more programs to help solve the digital divide. With little more than four percent of Austin citizens voting in the last election, he sees a great need to make the Internet a positive tool for political action.
The 21 members from the private sector appointed by Lt. Governor Perry to the Advisory Council on the Digital Economy are: Mike Maples, formerly the Vice President of Worldwide Products at Microsoft, serving as council chair; Andrew Busey, CEO of living.com; Michael Capellas, CEO of Compaq Corporation; Ken DeAngelis, partner of Austin Ventures; Thomas (Tom) Engibous, Chairman, CEO and President of Texas Instruments; Bob Fabbio, partner of TL Ventures; Donald Hackett, President and CEO of drkoop.com, Inc.; Dr. Katherine Hammer, President and CEO of Evolutionary Technologies International; John Hime, private investor; Christy Jones, President of pcOrder.com; Terrell B. Jones, President of Travelocity.com; James H. Lee, President of Tradescape.com Securities LLC; John McCain, Senior Vice President, E Solutions, EDS; Dick Moeller, President and CEO of VTEL Corporation; Dennis E. Murphree, Managing General Partner of Murphree Venture Partners; David G. Nance, President and CEO of Introgen Therapeutics Inc.; Kevin Rollins, Vice-chairman of Dell Computer Corporation; David Sikora, CEO and Chairman of Question.com; James Truchard, President and CEO of National Instruments; and Max Watson, CEO of BMC Software.
Perry also appointed four Senators to the council; Gonzalo Barrientos of Austin, Rodney Ellis of Houston, Steve Ogden of College Station and Florence Shapiro of Plano.