Ted Kennedy, Internet Pioneer

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It sounds silly, but it is, in fact, true. In this month of May, fifteen years ago, Ted Kennedy became the first Senator to communicate with constituents over the Internet. Back in 1993, this was no small feat. At the time there were no congressional offices connected to the Internet. (The House launched a pilot program on June 2, 1993, hooking up seven members to an Internet network.) One dedicated staffer and the technology hubs of MIT and other top-level educational institutions made Kennedy into the first digital Senator. Here’s the story (which you can read about in more detail Chris Casey’s book, The Hill on the Net):

One day while working as a systems administrator in the office of Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, Chris Casey dialed online to read the bulletin boards at Massachusetts universities. While finding answers to computer questions and downloading software to help in the office, Casey found himself reading threads about a variety of topics, including politics. The discovery of this online constituency led Casey to suggest that Kennedy reach out by creating his own online community and posting his press releases for public comment. Casey worked with Jonathan Gourd of North Shore Mac to set Kennedy up with a “conference” to connect with online constituents. Casey then went to sell the Senator’s office on the idea, eventually winning approval from Senator Kennedy himself, who, understanding the importance of constituent relations, told Casey, “If you can find a way for me to reach constituents using computer networks, do it.”

While Kennedy’s office initially set ground rules to not respond to written questions and comments, that barrier quickly fell aside as Casey cautiously entered the fray to give information on bills the Senator sponsored or votes the Senator took. Kennedy’s office also used the bulletin board to post the text of legislation for review, most notably the release of health care legislation prepared by Kennedy’s committee on the eve of President Bill Clinton’s big health care speech to Congress. Casey later worked with MIT to get the Kennedy bulletin board groups posted into usenet groups (ne.politics and talk.politics.misc). A year later to the month, Kennedy launched the first official Web site for a Senate office.

So, as many in the news and on the blogs pay their dues to Senator Kennedy for all of the bills that he had a hand in crafting, remember that every time you send an e-mail to your Senator, or talk to your congressman online, Ted Kennedy did it first.

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