Internet

Democrats launch free ISP; Republicans create portal

The Democratic National Committee plans to offer free Internet access to all comers, and Republicans launch a new information Web site at GOP.gov.

Taking a political game of online one-upmanship to new heights, the Democratic National Committee said today that it will begin offering free Internet access to all comers, regardless of political affiliation.

The service bundles free Internet service with Web access and free email via a new Web portal, FreeDem.com.

The announcement stole some thunder from Republicans, who today also announced a new informational Web site, GOP.gov. The site, a project of a taxpayer-funded group called the House Republican Congress, does not include free Internet access and has so far run up costs of about $170,000, according to spokesman Ron Bonjean.

"Providing quality Internet access to all citizens, regardless of financial status or political party preference, will be a major step toward building more on-ramps to the information superhighway and closing the gap between the 'wired' and 'non-wired' communities," DNC national chair Joe Andrew said in a statement.

Both the Democrats and the Republicans are aiming to seize opportunity on the Internet, which has quickly become a significant venue for political education, fund raising and campaigning.

Though regulators are still considering rules concerning many of these issues, start-ups and politicians are experimenting with a broad range of Internet strategies.

Representatives for both the Democrats and the Republicans said their new services are not campaign or election tools, and therefore do not raise concerns about possible violations of federal election laws.

A spokesman for the Federal Election Commission said the agency has set no final rules concerning Internet use by political parties, although it has issued tentative advisories on several online election and campaign issues. In January, the agency concluded the first stage of an inquiry into online election issues, gathering public comment on the topic.

According to the DNC, FreeDem.com will offer an open online discussion forum on political issues. Although no campaign advertising or fund raising will take place on the site, it will include links to other sites devoted to such activities, including the campaign Web site for Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore.

Spokesman Rick Hess said basic data will be collected about users of the service, but he said no personally identifiable information would be recorded. In addition, he said, FreeDem.com members can sign up for Democrat email lists on an "opt in" basis.

Providing back-end services for the DNC are free Internet service provider MillionEyes.com and Web portal builder iBelong.

According to a Republican spokesman, the GOP.gov site provides a way for citizens to easily get information about the Republican lawmakers. He said the site will not be used for campaigning or to raise money. The site will be overseen by the HRC, but content will be provided by individual members of Congress, he added.

The effort is the latest by Republicans to harness the Internet to provide information to voters and promote the party. In November, the Republican National Committee launched a fee-based Internet service called GOPnet.com.