Does the Internet make campaigning easier or harder?
In some ways, that’s a stupid question. Of course it makes it easier. The Internet has demolished distances between individuals and provided a suite of publishing and communication tools. If the Internet were only email, it would transform campaigning. And it’s so much more than email.
Also, the Internet is an auto-archive. It remembers (or at least, it can remember) what’s been submitted to it, and an audit trail comes out of the box (unless, of course, someone deletes the wrong combination of servers at some point in a comedy scifi future).
But the Internet also makes campaigning more difficult, because it removes focus. Before the Internet, when media outlets were few and closely held, focus was easy. It was a primetime television show, or a newspaper leader, or a magazine cover. Mass audiences were mobilised around relatively few loci. We still see echoes of this: almost 40 million Americans watched Barack Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic convention. But those shared mass moments are few and far between.
As a counter-example to Obama, let’s look at the way the UK’s Freedom of Information Act is being used as a campaign tool. And right away we see the problem: a lot of very excellent pieces, very loosely joined. Over here, we have the excellent SpyBlog, where they’re attempting to secure a list of places it’s forbidden to take photographs in Britain from the Ministry of Justice. Over there, the amazing WhatDoTheyKnow, which you can use to submit an FOI request and then track it. Channel 4 News has its own Freedom Files. And no doubt there are many others.
The problem here is that it’s relatively easy to set up a new FOI locus – it could be as simple as sending in a request and then launching a free WordPress blog to do something about it. The point is that each additional effort of this type weakens the existing efforts unless there is some kind of glue to bring it all together, another locus to focus efforts. It’s a kind of reverse network effect. How do I choose which of these efforts to follow? And where do I go if I want to follow all of them? I could set up a bunch of RSS feeds, or fiddle with Yahoo! Pipes, but what self-respecting non-geek with a life is going to do that?
What we need is some central organisation – perhaps a state-owned broadcaster – that can index these things in a common format, and then present them back to a mass audience in a single location. Hmmm. Anyone know of any such thing?
The response from the Minister of Justice to SpyBlog is worth repeating, in part, here. It’s prime Appleby:
However, it will not be possible to provide you with this information within the appropriate limit set out in section 12(1) of the Freedom of Information Act. Section 12 of the Act makes provision for public authorities to refuse requests for information where the cost of dealing with them would exceed the appropriate limit, which is set at £600 for central Government. The limit represents the estimated cost of one person spending 3½ working days locating, retrieving, and extracting the information. Your request is therefore refused under section 12 (1) of the FOI Act.
If you were to refine your request, for example by specifying a narrower time frame, or listing which orders you are especially interested in, we would be happy to reconsider your request.
I should point out that some of the information you request is also covered by further exemptions, in particular section 21 of the Freedom of Information Act, in that Orders made under the Official Secrets Act are accessible on the Office of Public Sector Information website (www.opsi.gov.uk) and/or the Statute Law Database (www.statutelaw.gov.uk).
In addition, some of the information you request falls within the area of responsibility of other Government Departments. The Communications Act 2003 is the responsibility of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Civil Aviation Act 2001 is the responsibility of the Department for Transport.