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Friday, 22 November, 2002, 09:02 GMT
Net activism offers lessons for ministers
Anti-capitalist protest in London
Many anti-capitalist protests organised online
BBC News Online's Jane Wakefield

The increasing use of the internet by political activists could provide valuable lessons for the UK Government, say experts.

At a summit of ministers, business leaders and net experts in London this week, officials acknowledged that the government needed to do more to get citizens engaged in the political process online.

And there were plenty of people on hand to offer advice.

Dr Ian Kearns, head of the Digital Society Project at think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research told the conference that e-democracy must walk hand-in-hand with e-government.

Challenging the establishment

There are officials on websites and in chatrooms

Patricia Hewitt, Trade and Industry Secretary
In a speech about how broadcasters can do more to engage the under-45s in political debate, the head of the BBC's New Politics Initiative, Sian Kevill, outlined the role the net can play.

"The internet allows people to come together and share information. It provides aggregated power to challenge the opinions of the political establishment," she said.

The BBC is keen to do its bit to re-ignite interest in politics. It plans to create a database of information about who's who in politics and how to get in contact with various government departments.

It also plans community sites to connect people who are interested in the same issues.

The government could follow the BBC's lead, suggested Ms Kevill, in its plans for building a more direct relationship with citizens.

However she recommended it did away with a lot of the jargon currently associated with government websites.

People power

Tony Blair has his picture taken on a cameraphone
Ministers looking for new ways to reach the young
In recent times online lobbying has played a vital role in changing legislation.

For instance a campaign objecting to the government's so-called e-snooping bill began online.

Thousands of people were persuaded to send faxes to their MPs registering their disapproval of plans to increase the number of public authorities that could have access to e-mail and web information.

Within 48 hours the government had abandoned the more controversial plans for the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.

Despite providing a forum for debate and opposition, the net is not free from snooping officialdom though.

Cyber spies

According to Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt, the government already has plenty of eyes in cyberspace.

E-democracy is a flashy word to use but I'm not quite sure there is much to it,

Solana Larsen, Open Democracy
"There are officials on websites and in chatrooms. It is important that we know what is being said," she admitted at the e-summit.

She is a fan of the open debate the internet offers people.

"I am very interested in using the advantage of the internet for richer political engagement," she told the conference.

Peoples' juries interrogating officials and online consultations would all help people re-engage with more formal politics, she said.

Getting in touch

Websites such as already provide a forum for objective coverage and debate about world issues. attracts around 20,000 visitors each week.

Solana Larsen, of Open Democracy, believes the government is not being visionary enough when it comes to e-democracy.

"It is a flashy word to use but I'm not quite sure there is much to it," she said.

She does not see the internet as a threat to democracy but said that the government puts too much reliance on technology to change things rather than the people that use it.

It is often hard for citizens even to get in touch with their MPs online, although all of them can be contacted via the website.

"We don't give out MP's e-mail address because they would get all sorts of spam," said a spokesman for the House of Commons.

Instead people can submit an online form, though there is no guarantee that they will get a speedy response.

"It is up to individual MPs how long they take to respond to queries," the spokesman added.

See also:

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