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Thursday, 17 August, 2000, 18:19 GMT 19:19 UK
Conference talk: Phil Noble on politics and the Internet

In the US, political parties are racing to outshine each other with their internet skills.

This week at the Democrat convention in Los Angeles, delegates have been able to cast votes on an Internet-based system. Visitors to the convention website can follow all the speeches from live webcams and microphones.

But behind the gadgets and the technical wizardry lies a more serious purpose: The internet is becoming an ever more powerful tool in the political process. From campaigning to fundraising and on-line voting, the web could transform politics.

Will the internet bring a new era of public involvement in the democratic process? Does cyber-politics raise questions of its own, about transparency, ethics or fairness? Or is it all just another way of packaging the same old material?

Phil Noble is a leading specialist on politics and the internet. He answered your questions live from the Democratic convention in Los Angeles.

To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:

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The Highlights

Matthew, UK: Do you think the "cyber-isation" of the party conventions will sterilise the great stuff from which such events are made? Would internet voting have promoted the great speeches such as Kennedy's "New Frontier" in 1960. I am by no means a technophobe but I do ask the question - is an essentially human activity like politics aided or degraded by technology?

Phil Noble: I personally think that it enriches the political process in a lot of ways. You are always going to have great orators who move people with words. That has always been the case, whether they were standing on a street corner in Edinburgh or on the back of a truck in New Delhi or on a political stage on television in Los Angeles. Politicians make great speeches with powerful ideas that move people. That's the essence of politics. The next step is the communications. You read it, you watch it, you hear it, you interact with it. And I think the internet adds another dimension that ultimately is going to enrich the process.

Daniel Gonzalez, Bogota, Colombia: How much money are the main parties raising through the internet? How fast is internet fundraising growing?

Phil Noble: The absolute dollar rate amounts are insignificant. The growth rate is staggering. I'll give you an example - our company, Politics Online, developed the first internet software expressly for fundraising for politics over the internet. We launched it September 1998. In 1999, the federal election commission okayed credit card contributions over the internet - within 2 months of that Bill Bradbury had raised one million dollars online. Three months later John McCain raised one million dollars in twenty-four hours online. Today we are only looking at one or two percent of the money raised online, but I suspect that in four or five years we will be seeing 75 percent of money raised over the internet.

Ross Chmiel, Dundee, UK: Does use of the Internet actually swing votes? If so, what sort of numbers are we talking about here?

Phil Noble: I think that the internet has the potential to make the difference of 5 to 7 per cent in an election. If you've got one candidate that really uses the internet well, understands it, makes full advantage of it, and somebody who doesn't understand it and doesn't use it, I think it has a 5 to 7 per cent swing potential. That is in a place where you have 50 to 60 percent of the people online. It's not going to make 5 to 7 per cent of difference in Uganda. But you can make a difference in terms of raising money as the organisational backbone of your campaign and in communicating with the press. All kinds of things. There is evidence of that. In 1998 Jesse Ventura in Minnesota was elected governor and he said he would not have been elected without the internet.

John Langland, Huntsville, Alabama USA: Is there not a danger that electronic voting will dilute the solemnity of the occasion, rendering the voting process no more meaningful or thought-provoking than the innumerable polls and "quizzes" and such flummery that one finds scattered over the Internet?

Phil Noble: Yes I do think this is a legitimate concern. Politics is always going to be about a mixture of tradition and new. In the US Senate today they still have spittoons on the floor left over from the 1700 and 1800's where people walked around and chewed tobacco - there are no computers on the Senate floor. On the same hand those politicians walk out the door - they are wired, they communicate over the internet. I think it is important to have some traditions and there is place for it. But I think that technology can expand ways that people communicate their beliefs. But there should always be a mix and it always should be. It's a great new potential.

Eddie Hoover, Dallas, USA: Given the fact that the United States has the lowest voter turnout of any modern democracy do you believe that full Internet voting would dramatically increase the number of people voting in elections? Would turnout increase disproportionately for certain groups? There are those who believe the poor would be left out due to lack of computer access.

Phil Noble: I think the question of turn out and voter participation is largely a question of political culture. I have spent a lot of time working in Malta with their political system. Malta has the highest voter turn out of any country in the world. They have 97 or 98 per cent. They take them out of the hospitals on beds to vote. What internet voting does is it will provide an expansion of the way people vote. For example, traditionally you had to turn up at the polls between 8.00 in the morning and 8.00 at night and write something on a piece of paper and drop it in a box. Then we expanded that with absentee voting where people could fill out forms and vote ahead of time. Then we decided in some places that we needed to let some people vote orally. In Oregon last year, they had a totally postal vote where you could vote by mail. The internet is just another way to expand the opportunities of people to vote. I think that if people are more comfortable voting over the internet then fine, let's vote over the internet. Let's not eliminate everything else but let's add another option.

Maria Jovanovicz, Yugoslavia: The internet may well be a useful tool for political parties in the USA but do you see the potential of the internet being used in other countries for political campaigning and voting?

Phil Noble: Yes definitely. About one third of our subscribers and customers are international and the same trends, the same developments and progression is happening all over the world. Every country has their own political culture and traditions and the Internet will be affected by those. But it's the same process that's happening everywhere. If it happens here then it will happen ten minutes later in the UK, fifteen minutes later in the rest of western Europe, followed by Asia and then Africa. Its only a matter of time.

Chuck Bradbury, Arizona, USA: Which political party do you think is winning the campaign on the internet?

Phil Noble:

Somebody said that the two political parties are sort of like the old Soviet Union and the United States during the arms race. One would come up with new technology and would 'be ahead'. Someone else would leap forward and then the other side would leap forward back. I think the Democrats have done a much better job here at the convention of integrating and using the internet than the Republicans did in Philadelphia. At the grassroots level it is actually just the opposite. We find that the Republicans are a little more aggressive in taking up the technology and using it. So again, there is no great disparity. We will continue have our superpowers leapfrogging each other on technology. There is no real difference.

Richard Swain, Nottingham UK: Are you excited by the way that the internet has allowed a much more balanced view of the conventions this year. I am thinking particularly of the Independant media services such as IndyMedia and Deep Dish, who have covered in depth the protests and demonstrations outside the conventions as well the police over-reaction, all of which is barely mentioned in the mainstream media.

Phil Noble: No I don't really think that it has coloured the coverage. The wonderful thing about the internet is that it gives everybody a voice. It gives everybody a chance to talk about their spin on what they see in the street or halls or in the protest. I don't think the coverage on the internet has been more fair or less fair than any other media. We have hardcore supporters of the protesters and then the supporters of the police - but that's just the way it is.

Louis Abima, Lagos, Nigeria: Can the internet help to break the stranglehold that the two main parties have in American politics?

Phil Noble: I think absolutely that it will. I think that the internet is going to create political parties. There is already a political party in Switzerland born, conceived and raised on the internet. I think there are going to be dozens and dozens of parties and they are going to come and go. I think that the main parties, if they are smart will stay ahead of the curve but absolutely, I think we are going to have a plethora of parties and I think that is going to be exciting.

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