TCS Daily

Egad, It's eGray!

By Sonia Arrison - September 12, 2002 12:00 AM

Last week, California gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon stirred things up when his campaign posted a satire of Governor Gray Davis auctioning public policies at web site While not as outrageous as the vote swapping sites from the 2000 election, it's a reminder that the Internet still affects political discourse.
One way the Net changes things is that word of mouth can travel much faster. "The first week, without publicity, we got 20,000 unique visitors to eGray," said Chris Tyrrell, Simon's Director of Technology. "E-mail is like the high-tech version of the water cooler." And a lot of people were laughing into their glasses at eGray auction items like the "get out of jail free" card.

The number of visitors skyrocketed when USA Today mentioned and then when an eBay spokesperson said the company might file a legal complaint because of the similarity of the parody to the real eBay site. The day of the eBay comments, received an estimated 30,000 unique visits. Not a bad way to get a political message across.

As to whether eBay's legal threats have much merit, Chapman University law professor Tom Bell thinks it's unlikely. "The Simon campaign would have a good defense," he said. After all, the site is clearly a satire in a political campaign, giving Simon's team First Amendment claims worthy of ACLU support.

The Internet also makes it easier to organize grassroots supporters and to personalize the process. Simon's campaign system blasts e-mails to specified zip codes, automatically adds volunteers over the web, and allows for e-polling on various issues. The Davis campaign is also using the Net, but perhaps not to the same degree.

"The Internet is good for putting up press releases and recruiting volunteers" said Gabriel Sanchez, Davis's Deputy Press Secretary, "but you have to remember that anything you put up on your site can be used by your opponents."

It's true that new technology is often a double-edged sword. Spam, for instance, was a problem California's Secretary of State Bill Jones discovered during the primaries.

Jones became infamous last February when his campaign for governor sent out at least a million unsolicited e-mails. "Even people in Canada were complaining," Sanchez remarked. Although campaign spam is not illegal, both Simon and Davis officials agree: spamming is a practice neither of them does or plans to do.

Few laws govern campaigns on the Net, apparently disturbing California lawmakers who passed a bill last year creating the "California Commission on Internet Political Practices."

The Commission hasn't reported yet, but its task is to "address the issues presented by political activity on the Internet and on the desirability of state regulation." At a time when the last thing the Internet needs is more regulation, one hopes that the tech-savvy commissioners will support the free flow of information. State regulation of a global medium is ultimately futile.

The interconnected nature of the Net and the ease of web publishing also allow for a broader range of speakers on political issues. Personal Web logs, called "blogs," frequently offer political commentary, and the Web also offers opportunities to blur the lines between politician and talk show host.

Marc Strassman, for example, is running for Mayor of a California jurisdiction that might exist if voters decide to allow San Fernando Valley to secede from Los Angeles. He is spending almost nothing on his campaign except for time and $20 on printed flyers, but he's also got an online video talk show that he's using to interview his opponents.

Perhaps earnestly interviewing one's opponents is a tactic that would only fly in LA, but the idea of politicians maintaining regular Internet talk shows is something that seems a natural progression.

The hype surrounding the Internet has faded, but the power of the Net as a communications medium has not. In California and other jurisdictions around the globe, the Net is augmenting the political process. While the use of new technologies doesn't guarantee electoral success, it certainly helps - especially when combined with good old-fashioned humor.

Sonia Arrison is director of the Center for Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.

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