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Democracy, Net style

Only blocks away from the White House, a revolution is in the making, and the federal government doesn't even know it.

Only blocks away from the White House, a revolution is in the making, and the federal government doesn't even know it.

The agent of this change comes in the unlikely form of the buttoned-down bureaucracy of the Federal Communications Commission. Hardly known for its political stridency, the FCC has nonetheless sparked a democratic process that could change the way American society governs itself.

In almost a lark a few months ago, the FCC opened its required public comment period to the Internet before making policy. The response has been, to say the least, unexpected.

After posting a proposal to charge access fees to Internet service providers, the agency received more than 400,000 emails, jamming its networks and shutting down its servers. Nearly equal to that was the response to regulations on children's television ratings.

As a result, the FCC is being looked upon as something of a civic experiment by the rest of the federal government. Other agencies are considering using the Net, CD-ROMs, and other electronic vehicles as a way of encouraging public participation.

Opinions regarding the Internet's potential as a democratic tool have vacillated widely. Not long ago, newly christened Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was portraying political nirvana through the electronic nation-state of the Net, forecasting direct democracy through online voting in just a few years; today, the medium is often portrayed as a cesspool of pornography, conspiracy theory, and mindless TV-type consumerism.

Such negative stereotyping has emanated from all quarters of The Establishment (the '90s version), traditional print journalists being chief among the perpetuators. Crucifying the Internet as a font of half-truths and outright fiction, these wise men and women dismiss the medium as a legitimate instrument of democracy.

The reality lies (as always) somewhere in between the extremes, in pockets of virtual communities who turn to the Net to address specific issues. While these people won't be changing the world anytime soon, they are contributing to a nascent movement that is impossible to deny.

Evidence of progress abounds on several fronts. Only hours after last week's Supreme Court hearing on the Communications Decency Act, a full transcript of the proceedings was posted on the Web for anyone to see. Consumer groups and citizen-activist groups that had languished throughout the Reagan era say they are undergoing a renaissance unseen since the '60s, thanks in large part to grassroots electronic activism. And groups of all kinds, from wronged investors to victims of medical malpractice, can now turn to places for help, as well as to each other for support.