by Ralph Nader
May 24, 2003
Do new technologies trump power and decentralize it as some technophiles believe? Not if repressive power gets there first.
Here are three examples from the federal government where either corporate or political power has blocked technology from helping you assess your elected Representatives and receive a more efficient government.
1. Log onto the website of your Congressional Representatives. Over 95 percent of members of the House and Senate still do not place their voting record there in a clear, timely and promptly retrievable fashion.
For an example of one legislator who does, see:
Now is there anything more important to be regularly on elected officials' websites than their voting record? A PEW survey shows people want such information above all other. Fingertip access by voters back home, by the press, by students and scholars would change the dynamic of accountability between politicians and the people. But the politicians have other ideas. They want to communicate to their constituents through their slick newsletters, radio and television monologues and other formats where they can shine, sloganize and obfuscate.
For two years, some citizen groups, including ours, have been demanding that all members do what Cong. Frank Wolf and Cong. Christopher Shays have done for years. I have written to the Democratic and Republican leadership in the House and Senate twice urging that their members publish their voting records. So adverse are the two parties to performing this simple service for the folks back home who pay their salary, benefits and perks, that these leaders have not even bothered to respond.
The Technology is available. The Power says No. So you try with your lawmakers. (Don't let them mislead you by links to the cumbersome Thomas database.)
2. Federal departments and agencies sign hundreds of billions of dollars in contracts with corporations each year. Technology permits them to put these contracts on their website in full view of potentially better competitors, scholars, the media and any citizen who wants to question them in whole or in part. Power by corporations, in sync with bureaucrats who prefer to work in the shadows, says no.
So all kinds of deals with oil, gas, coal, hard rock mineral companies, drug and health care companies, weapons manufacturers, computer and assorted supplier firms, consulting outfits and landlords - to name a few - would be exposed to the sunshine. Justice Louis Brandeis once called this kind of sunshine, "the best disinfectant."
Quite likely, there would be less waste, fraud and corruption, and more quality competition. Fairer provisions for the taxpayers would start replacing these one-sided agreements and handouts that favor vendors and corporate welfare kings.
Now it looks like Technology has a backer. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), under the leadership of Mitch Daniels, wants these contracts online above a certain minimum dollar amount and with due regard to redacting sentences involving national security. OMB will see to it that a proposed system to achieve this open government will be placed very soon in the Federal Register for public comment. At last, Power For vs. Power Against. Let's see who wins.
3. The US government is a huge consumer of software. But Microsoft has huge monopoly power in the market for operating systems and also for applications like word processors, spreadsheets and presentation graphics.The Justice Department let Microsoft off when it had the monopolist in a full nelson! Still, the US government, as a Big Consumer, can use its vast purchasing power to break this Microsoft monopoly and save hundreds of millions of dollars yearly by dramatically changing software markets.
The source of Microsoft's power is its control over standards and, in particular, Microsoft's ability to change constantly the formats in which data are stored. People pay top dollar for upgrades to Microsoft Word and Powerpoint simply to be guaranteed that they can read, exchange and edit files with others.
Yet there are competitive software programs that do a fine job of creating and editing documents and presentations. However, users are afraid these non-Microsoft products will not be able to properly read and modify documents created by Microsoft's dominant software.
The US government can "solve" this problem by requiring, through a customer specification, that all software programs it purchases use as a default a nonproprietary data format which is approved by all competitors.
There is no reason for a monopoly on word processing or presentation graphics programs. People use dozens if not hundreds of different programs to create web pages, and this works for a simple reason. The World Wide Web is based upon open standards. If our government-as-consumer leads the way, it can stimulate competition and innovations for these important software applications. If the government does not lead the way, we may soon find there are no competitors left.
The Technology is there. Will the democratic Power be there to put it to work? Let's hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ralph Nader is Americaís leading consumer advocate. He is the founder of numerous public interest groups including Public Citizen, and has twice run for President as a Green Party candidate. His latest book is Crashing the Party: How to Tell the Truth and Still Run for President (St. Martinís Press, 2002)