In the spring of 2002, the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet at the Graduate School of Political Management was chartered by The George Washington University. Formerly called the Democracy Online Project, the Institute is funded primarily by grants from The Pew Charitable Trusts. The mission of the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet is to promote the development of U.S. online politics in a manner that increases citizen participation and upholds democratic values.

The Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet has three principal goals:

1. The establishment of a research base for the study of online politics, especially with respect to American campaigns and elections.

2. The design, testing, refinement, and promotion of appropriate standards of practice for the conduct of online campaigning.

3. The creation and public promotion of an online public space where good campaign practices and democratic values may thrive.

Since the debut of the World Wide Web, we have learned that networks of computerized media can accommodate as much and as many kinds of communication as we care to bring to them. Many things can, and will, happen online. There is room enough in the exceptionally malleable and decentralized multimedia environment referred to, for simplicity’s sake, as “the Internet” for a variety of political voices to be heard, and for a profusion of political entities (parties, interest groups, personal followings) to coexist. To a great extent, the pandemonium that is contemporary politics will be replicated online.

However, if the history of technology is a reliable guide, a general template for what occurs online will be stamped for most Internet users during the next few years. Corporations and governments will consolidate their presence, and set a pace, tone, and context for politics. Consumer tastes and habits will form; production standards will be established; and myths will spread about an election winner here and advocacy group there who prevailed “because of” their online prowess.

To what extent will the “norm” which emerges in this formative period be harmonious with the values we have associated with democratic communication at its finest? Freedom of expression. Universal access. Government accountability. Social tolerance. Public deliberation.

The time to raise expectations about political discourse as it develops online is, as the orators would say, now. It is far easier, and far more effective, to create institutions and practices in a new medium, than it is to reform them in an old one.