Craigslist Founder: Web Can Still Help Gov't Better Connect

The U.S. is at a historic crossroads during which residents can make government more responsive and transparent through innovative uses of the Internet, Craigslist's founder said Friday.

Craig Newmark, who now works as a customer service representative at Craigslist, called on young U.S. residents to register to vote and to demand more transparency and accountability from elected officials. And he called on lawmakers to incorporate discussion boards into their Web sites and on the U.S. government to put nearly all its information online.

Elected officials are still fighting some attempts to move information online and to provide transparency, said Newmark, speaking at a Washington, D.C., event hosted by Google. A handful of Republicans in the U.S. Senate have attempted to block passage of the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act, which would require senators to file their campaign finance reports electronically, Newark said.

The House of Representatives now requires its members to file campaign funding reports electronically, but "it kind of looks like someone's being protected in the Senate," Newmark said.

A spokesman for Senator John Ensign, a Nevada Republican who Newmark accused of blocking the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act, denied that was the case. Ensign wants an amendment to the bill that would require that groups filing ethics complaints against senators reveal who is financing their efforts, said spokesman Tory Mazzola.

"All he wants is a vote, then we'll pass the e-filing bill," Mazzola said. "Light needs to shine on this increasingly abused process."

Supporters of the e-filing bill say Ensign's amendment is a "poison pill" designed to change the bill in a way that would make it difficult to pass.

Newmark, who serves on an advisory committee for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, didn't spend a lot of time criticizing Republicans directly during his Friday talk, but he did seem to take some veiled shots at President George Bush's administration, and he suggested that major changes in government accountability and transparency are needed.

The Bush administration has generally received positive reviews for moving more and more government information online, but has also been criticized for claiming national security concerns prohibit the public disclosure of large swaths of information. Vice President Dick Cheney has argued that much of the records in his office are not public because he's not part of the executive branch of government.

Young U.S. residents can demand a change toward "networked grassroots democracy," Newmark said. "We have a chance to change things."

He urged young residents to vote and to support organizations like the Sunlight Foundation, an online advocacy group focused on increasing government transparency. Newmark served on the board of the group. Young voters have a chance to "bail out our collective baby boomer butts," Newmark said. "I really need the kids to come out and vote.

"Also, I need them to get off my lawn, but that's another issue," he said, making fun of his age.

Lawmakers should have staff members devoted to monitoring online messages boards where politics and related issues are debated, because that's where much of today's debate takes place, Newmark said. They should set up their own message boards where constituents can debate issues and offer suggestions, he said. Lawmakers get tons of e-mail, but it's difficult to filter out which messages come from constituents, he said.

"Any politician or corporate leader needs to know the 'Net," Newmark said. "If not, they're out of touch."

Newmark also called on the U.S. government to enact net neutrality rules prohibiting broadband providers from blocking or slowing some Web content to the benefit of content they favor. And he told the Washington crowd that not all lobbyists are bad, despite a popular view outside the beltway that they are. Many lobbyists, such as the people at Consumers Union, have the public interest at heart, he said.

Before Newmark spoke, large screens in the room cycled through recent Craigslist ads: a free coffin; free vegetable oil for biodiesel; New Kids on the Block concert tickets for sale; an abstract oil painting for US$5,500; desperately seeking iPhone 3G.

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