Democracy - well, the government and MPs - is slowly getting netted. Andrew Brown reports
Late last year Timothy Leary, the former LSD guru, announced he was launching a "cyber-invasion" of the UK. The power and indignation of the world's 60 million e-mail users would be harnessed against the Criminal Justice Act, and the British government would be swept off its feet by a global surge of e-mail.

This declaration of cyberwar, made to a packed and ecstatic night-club audience in California, was followed by the circulation (on the Internet) of eight e-mail addresses. Unfortunately, only four of the names were of MPs - they included Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown - and only one of them, David Shaw, was a Conservative.

The story vividly demonstates one reason why politicians might shy away from electronic democracy. There are plenty more. One has only to look at the quality of political or religious discussion on even the more civilised bulletin-board systems such as Cix or the Well to see how little political debate would be improved by being conducted electronically. Usenet discussion groups (on the Internet), dominated by the opinions of students, are far worse.

Nevertheless, politicians - in common with almost everyone else - are wondering how they can use the computers connected by telephones to get their message across. Subcomandante Marcos, leader of Mexico's Zapatista rebels, sends communiqus to the Internet from a laptop computer. "What governments should really fear is a communications expert," he says.

It is unlikely that many British MPs will be bowled over by the Subcomandante's message, because they will not see it. One Tory minister has an e-mail link: Ian Taylor, minister for technology. Robert Hughes, minister for public services and science, used to have one, but he recently resigned. Labour does a little better: Tony Blair, Frank Dobson, environment spokesman, and Chris Smith, National Heritage spokesman, are wired up.

Only a handful of politicians see e-mail as a way of keeping in touch with their constituents. They include Stephen Timms (see below) and Anne Campbell, Labour MP for Cambridge. She runs an hour-long surgery each week by e-mail.

Like the Zapatistas, politicians are increasingly keen to use electronic publishing as a way of disseminating rather than collecting information. This may not be very useful: it is possible to download the miaowing of Bill Clinton's cat, Socks, from the White House Web server. But it is also possible to download the texts of all open presidential press briefings of the past year and a great deal more information that is timely and informative.

The Americans are way ahead of the British, for two reasons. First, far more US households have PCs and modems, and use them. One recent survey showed that 17 per cent of New York Times readers were so equipped. It is possible to cast a vote for Time magazine's Man of the Year over the World Wide Web.

Perhaps more important, Americans expect and demand more openness than the British are accustomed to. It is an important part of US political culture that there should be publically accessible documents, such as the Constitution, which legitimise political action. The text of the Constitution is still accessible from the White House Web server, along with all recent Supreme Court judgments. There is also a US government Web site called Fedworld, which holds a massive amount of information.

Attitudes are different in London. Earlier this month Graham Allen, shadow information spokesman, asked the Prime Minister to list the e-mail numbers of all government ministers. "It is a matter for individual ministers to decide whether or not to make them public," Mr Major replied.

Yet bits of the government are dipping their toes into the electronic water. The Treasury published the last Budget on a World Wide Web page, which it still maintains. Ernst & Young, the accountancy firm, responded by publishing its traditional summary the same way. To be able to read the entire budget and a commentary at midnight on the day of its promulgation must have been a milestone in the lives of insomniacs.

The Treasury's budget server was, however, overwhelmed by the demand for its wares. It has grown much more useful since, and now contains the officially published minutes of monthly meetings between the Chancellor and the Governor of the Bank of England. It also carries ministers' speeches and the reports of the panel of independent forecasters, known as the Wise Men.

Other government departments can put information on a Web site that has been running since November. Optimistally tagged open.gov.uk, it is maintained by the Government Centre for Information Systems (which confusingly sticks to its old acronym, CCTA). Half the government departments are on the site, even if the information they provide is hardly scintillating. The Ministry of Agriculture provides statistics about land use, while the the Royal Parks runs through amenities. The Department of Trade's Web information is skimpy, but does tell you where to find the full text of documents by using file transfer protocol. FTP, which allows you to move files down the line into your computer, is available to CompuServe subsicribers, who have yet to be given access to the Web.

CCTA says its pages have been accessed 600,000 times and many people have filled in their comments in the form provided (most common questions: why are Hansard and white papers not on the Net?). And in May, there may be another breakthrough in electronic democracy. MPs should be given a link to the Internet through the Parliamentary Data and Video Network. If enough of them bother to try it out, politicians may yet catch up with the web-surfing public.

White House http://www. whitehouse.gov. Fedworld http://www. fedworld.gov. Treasuryhttp:// www.hm-treasury.gov.uk. CCTA (other government depts): http://www.open.gov.uk.

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