Information and communication are essential to democratic policy- making. Citizens need information about issues affecting their interests and aspirations. They need to communicate among themselves in order to develop common positions. And they need to voice their positions in the policy-making process. When information exists and can be accessed, when discussion among dispersed individuals is possible, and when communication to political representatives is feasible, then effective democratic participation is possible.
A number of recent policy activities demonstrate the power of the Internet for grassroots participation. In the controversy surrounding the Digital Telephony Bill for electronic eavesdropping, individuals throughout the United States became informed of issues and voiced their concerns to their elected representatives. More recently, the NTIA hosted a conference on universal service policy on the Internet. A brief survey of these and other activities shows how the technology's potential is already being realized.
The author of this paper was one of the early activists who launched the Telecommunication Policy Roundtable of the Northeast (TPR-NE). Located in Boston, TPR-NE is a regional coalition of non-profit and public interest groups with a stake in telecommunications policy. Participants include computer professionals, public access television, educators, unions, and others. The group holds monthly forums that address current issues in telecommunication policy and Internet usage (e.g. community networks, universal access, journalism on the Net). It also helps members to achieve common policy positions and to express those opinions to policy-makers.
In becoming organized and in its operational activities, TPR-NE has benefitted very much from the low cost and ease of use of the Internet. The costs of communication, in terms of money and time, are far less than with alternative media such as phone, fax, or face-to-face meetings. A simple listserv has proven to be the most effective tool for organizing.
Yet the technology has also revealed weaknesses. Obviously, Internet "have-nots" do not benefit from the technology. Some early participants who chose not to get on-line gradually ceased participating in TPR-NE. Privacy has also been an issue: discussion of more sensitive topics like program funding have had to go off-line. One solution to this is the creation of a limited-access listserv, but that formalizes an undesirable division of the coalition into insiders and outsiders.
By framing the problem, surveying recent activities, and examining one case in detail, this paper hopes to educate readers about the power of the Internet for grassroots organizing. It also describes the activities of the Telecommunications Policy Roundtable of the Northeast which is now serving as a model for other grassroots activities elsewhere in the nation.