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Internet Watch

The Importance of Electronic Communication: Where We've Been, Where We Are Now, and What's Coming

by Betsy Joyce

No event in our history has brought home the value of electronic mail and messaging more than the Sept. 11 tragedies and the recent anthrax threat to our postal service. Many government agencies had to go for weeks without regular postal mail - sometimes called "snail mail" by those in the Internet community - while the mail was scanned for any trace of anthrax. More and more people began looking to electronic means to transmit information. Government agencies and Congress began encouraging people to consider using electronic means to complete filings, comment on proposed rules, submit consumer complaints, ask questions, and much more. This push began over the past few years and has been magnified due to recent events.

Where It All Started

The first e-mail was sent in 1971 by Ray Tomlinson of ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network). For several years, e-mail remained mostly private, used only by computer scientists, the military, and then colleges and universities. MCI Mail and CompuServe teamed up in 1989 to provide the first commercial electronic mail connection to the Internet through the Corporation for the National Research Initiative (CNRI) and Ohio State University. In 1991, the World Wide Web, developed by Tim Berners-Lee, was released by CERN, the Conseil Europeenne pour la Recherche Nucleaire in Geneva, Switzerland. The World Wide Web was originally created as a means for collaboration between physicists and other researchers in the physics community. Its release to the public was just the beginning of the "WWW" that so many people use now.

America Online and Delphi started to connect their propriety e-mail systems to the Internet in 1993. This was a significant step toward the adoption of e-mail by the general public. E-mail has become an increasingly common tool for communication over the past decade. In the beginning, it was viewed as a very informal means of communication. Typically, individuals used it for their personal needs rather than for business use.

Where We Are Now

As the Internet grew in the 1990s, so did the legitimacy of the Internet and e-mail communication. E-business, e-commerce, and e-government have emerged. The recent tragedy on Sept. 11 has provided an even larger boost for electronic transactions and communication. It has become a legitimate and valuable means of communication. E-mail has become one of the primary forms of communication for individuals everywhere.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) are just a few of the agencies moving toward electronic communication and filing. DOT reported a spike in electronic filings compared to this time last year. The U.S. Capitol building was probably the hardest hit by the anthrax threat. The result? Members urged their constituents to contact them via e-mail since regular mail wouldn't be reaching them for several weeks while it was being decontaminated. According to the Congress Online Project, congressional offices reported a 200- to 400-percent increase in e-mail traffic during this time period.

How did they manage all of that e-mail? Technology saved the day. Senate offices are installing an advanced e-mail management system that screens e-mail. The system flags threatening messages while filtering "spam" (unsolicited e-mail advertisements), as well as duplicated and out-of-state messages. That alone cuts the e-mail volume in half. The leftover mail is then analyzed by software that can identify the subject and general attitude of the writer whether it is negative, positive or neutral. From that identification, the e-mail is then forwarded to the appropriate staff member. Automatic responses can also be set up to respond to some general questions. Senate offices have found this system to be very valuable, and it is scheduled to be available in all Senate offices by the end of January 2002.

What's Coming

In the future, we can expect to see more and more advanced e-mail systems similar to the one being used by the Senate. These systems will improve over time to make transactions easier and faster. And, because most e-mail systems are not secure, we can also expect to see improvements in Internet security - a must if more sensitive information is going to be sent electronically. There has also been discussion of creating a network specifically for government agencies that will not be accessible to the general public. This would further increase the security of not only our e-mail, but of specific agencies' internal Web sites as well. These are just a few of the advances we can expect in the years to come.

Betsy Joyce is the webmaster for the Federal Highway Administration's Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center in McLean, Va. She is employed by Avalon Integrated Services Corp. of Arlington, Va.