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Will America Log On To The Internewt?


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WILL AMERICA LOG ON TO THE INTERNEWT?

Is America ready for Newtnet, the pulsing, on-line heartbeat of conservative populism?

The nation may not have a choice. If Speaker-in-waiting Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) gets his way, he'll use the Internet as an electronic town hall that could build grass-roots support for his singular brand of conservatism. And Gingrich wants to create information empowerment zones in those rural and urban areas that aren't yet cradles of on-line activity. "The best description of me is that I'm a conservative futurist," he declared in a Nov. 11 speech. Adds Kenneth Kay, director of the Computer Systems Policy Project, a lobbying group of computer-industry chief executives: "Gingrich has a populist notion that with information technology, angry, disenfranchised people will be empowered to take more control over their government."

Thus far, Gingrich's techno-vision may be a wee bit ahead of his capacity: He didn't return electronic requests for information on his plans left at his Internet address. But the House Republicans' "Contract with America" lays out the modest beginnings of his electronic agenda. Top priority: making Congress as computer-friendly as the White House, where the President and Vice-President have Internet addresses--and actually use them. Gingrich intends to put all pending House legislation on-line, thus thwarting the shadowy cloakroom tricks of special-interest lobbyists and skulking Democrats.

"OUT-GORE GORE." The move toward electronic access is an outgrowth of Gingrich's belief in participatory democracy--greater citizen access, via direct referendums and ballot initiatives--to bypass an entrenched bureaucracy. His strategy also reflects a fondness for The Third Wave authors Heidi and Alvin Toffler, who proclaim an Information Revolution that could transcend the Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions in its impact on American society. The Tofflers and Gingrich became friendly in the early 1970s while the future lawmaker was teaching history at West Georgia College. Gingrich even penned the foreword to the Tofflers' new monograph: Creating a New Civilization: The Politics of the Third Wave. "On virtually every front," he wrote, "we see the information revolution changing the fabric, pace, and substance of our lives."

In that sense, Gingrich sees eye to eye with Vice-President Al Gore, the Administration's Info Highway evangelist. The Speaker may be trying to "out-Gore Gore," as one White House official puts it. But he is less willing than the veep to use government money to fund demonstration projects and other industry efforts to prove the technology. GOP bean counters, in fact, already are taking aim at the High Performance Computing & Communications Initiative, which provides public funding for supercomputing and network research.

Gingrich's desire to put all legislation on-line, though, represents sound strategy. It stems from GOP anger over being forced to vote for the crime bill last August without knowing what was in it; the final version was being printed in the House basement as the vote took place. Under Gingrich's rule, no final House vote could take place until a measure is on-line.

That would allow the on-line nation to send gripes electronically to lawmakers. But it also would limit the power of new GOP House leaders to cram pork and other goodies into legislation in the dead of night. No matter, say Republicans. "We're trying to bring the House into the 21st century," says Representative Vernon J. Ehlers (R-Mich.), who heads the GOP's automation task force.

POWERFUL TOOL. Gingrich's plans are far more sweeping, though, than procedural reform of the House. He wants to harness cyberspace, a hotbed of political activism that tends to veer toward the economic conservatism and social libertarianism of the Right. Shortly before the midterm elections, for example, the Prodigy on-line service polled subscribers on their party affiliations. Of the 20,800 people who responded, Republicans outnumbered Democrats 53% to 26%. Numerous electronic bulletin boards are targeted at conservatives, and CompuServe has long had a forum for fans of conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, who met his wife on-line. Recently, according to one cyberpunk, traffic devoted to Gingrich on the America Online service even outstripped that about Limbaugh.

If the on-line nation really is predominantly Republican, Gingrich may have a powerful political instrument in his hands. He can use it for everything from raising funds from Silicon Valley execs to reaching vast numbers of potential recruits in his antigovernment crusade. Gingrich wants to use the Infobahn to promote grass-roots democracy. But he wants to make sure it's spelled with a small "d."Mark Lewyn and John Carey in Washington


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