The business of government has changed dramatically in the Internet era. Congress passed the E-Government Act of 2002 to require federal agencies to put their decisions online and be able to receive public comments online. It didn't take long for democracy as a whole to come knocking on Washington doors -- electronically.
Just as lobbying members of Congress moved quickly from paper envelopes and stamps to e-mail campaigns, the work of federal regulatory agencies, which operate often with more power and less public scrutiny, is now affected by waves of mass e-mail campaigns. Groups pushing any number of political causes are loading up their e-mail guns, on causes from cars to cantaloupes.
Academics like Stuart Shulman of the University of Pittsburgh have estimated that almost all electronic complaining to Washington comes in form letters -- some of them, about 20 percent, with original comments appended. They say mass e-mail campaigns could possibly harm interest groups in their attempts to influence government, since many bureaucrats tend to ignore repetitive complaints.
That has not been the case at the Federal Communications Commission, where mass e-mail complaints against sleazy television have led to big fines and wailing and gnashing of teeth in Hollywood. The titillation industry can't stand it when people speak up against their smarmy ways. Hollywood, its hired Washington guns and fellow-traveling TV critics around the country are now claiming these protesters must not be real people, because doesn't everybody like a heaping helping of televised sex, violence and profanity after dinner every night?
CBS has filed a motion with the FCC that its fines over the network's teen-orgy scene on "Without A Trace" should be thrown out because "complaints about the show did not come from real people," as the Hollywood Reporter explained it. Many of the thousands of complaints came through the Web site of the Parents Television Council. These people aren't "real?" Are they phantoms? Aliens from outer space?