Welcome to the Age of Digital Transparency.
From the stimulus bill to the Congressional Budget Office's analysis of the cost of the Democrats' health care bill to the "Climate-Gate" e-mails that have raised doubts about global warming, the average American now has unprecedented access to a deluge of information.
Copies of written legislation ... amendments ... government oversight reports ... They're all a click away on the World Wide Web.
"It's now impossible for politicians to hide behind rhetoric when the reality of the information is available to a mass number of people on the Internet" said Richard F. Hanley, graduate director of journalism and interactive communications at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn.
"The idea of speech conveying the detail of information is outmoded, because the speech can be fact-checked by anyone with the Internet," Hanley said.
Not only does the Internet speed the delivery of mass amounts of information to the general public, it also accelerates access to precise parts of legislation. You don't have to sift through a 1,700-page health care reform bill to find details about Medicare beneficiaries. Just type in a few search terms, and the information is right there in front of you.
Government Web sites like Recovery.gov enable citizen activists to track stimulus money -- adding fuel to proponents of the Obama administration's spending while also giving fodder to his opponents, such as the grassroots Tea Party movement, which thrives on data to support its small-government agenda.
For politicians, the Internet is a double-edged sword. Political arguments can be bolstered by information posted on the Web, but lies, half-truths and distortions by policy-makers also can be fact-checked in minutes.
"Now all people in the policy-making apparatus have access to the same information," said historian David Kennedy of Stanford University. "It makes the debate richer because everyone has access to the same information."
Paul Levinson, professor of communications at Fordham University in New York, said Americans have traditionally based their opinions on legislation through the characterizations and descriptions of individual politicians. But the Internet has undermined the influence of the politicians' words, Levinson said. He cited Sarah Palin's claim that the Democrats' health care bill would create so-called "death panels" to determine whether the sick and elderly deserve life-saving medical treatment -- a claim that was widely debunked by lawmakers and the media.
"The only antidote to that is getting the information directly to the American people so they can judge for themselves," Levinson said.
The new access to information in the "age of digital transparency" begs the question: Would some of the sweeping legislation that preceded health care reform have been approved if the public could have scrutinized every word online? Would Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal" or Lyndon B. Johnson’s "Great Society" have succeeded in an Internet age?
Historians say it's hard to know.
"I don’t know how popular access to the Internet translates back to the behavior of the actual policy makers," Kennedy said.
But others, including Levinson, argue that the greater amount of public information available on a particular piece of legislation, the more popular the policy often becomes. He said the New Deal, a series of economic programs passed by Congress during FDR's first term, passed largely because more information was made available in the 1930s through the use of a relatively new technology.
They called it radio.