While dressed in pajamas at my breakfast table last week, I joined more than 407,000 other Americans in telling President Barack Obama that we disapprove of his recent appointments to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. With a simple tap on my smartphone, I was able to connect with a body of people who shared my position.

Kristen Kiluk

Voicing my opinion through an Internet petition was convenient, but I have to wonder how effective this process is. A simple click of the mouse seems way too easy to have a powerful impact on federal policy and decision-making. Can it really make a difference?

However menial my act of Internet participation may seem, it’s true that the face of the World Wide Web is changing. The Internet is becoming a far more pivotal place — a breeding ground for massive social and political collaboration.

Take the Internet-mediated evolution of the Occupy Wall Street movement for example. It was first organized on Twitter, and mobilized many participants to protest through events, petitions and articles posted on Facebook. The movement even has a central website, www.occupytogether.org, where you can find contact information for regional Occupy groups and resources to start up your own Occupy group.

The petition I signed last week, though first posted at signon.org in September, has suddenly gained momentum this month. It’s a call to stop the appointment of government officials who have ties to the very industries which they are responsible for regulating. The key request of the petition is to remove Michael Taylor, the FDA deputy commissioner for foods appointed by Obama in January 2010.

A quick look at Taylor’s employee profile on the FDA website shows that he has worked in various government positions throughout the FDA and Department of Agriculture, in addition to some university research positions. He is well-educated and experienced with issues of food safety and policy. But scroll down to the very end of the profile — yes, it is listed as the very last detail on the page — and you see that he served as the vice president for public policy at Monsanto Company. He held the position from 1998-2001.

If you are not already aware, Monsanto Company is the same organization which championed the use of pesticides such as DDT and Agent Orange during and after the Second World War. Given that these two substances were later banned by the Environmental Protection Agency due to their severe health effects, I can’t bring myself to entrust the laws regarding the health and safety of the American population to a former employee of such a profit-motivated, socially irresponsible organization.

Though it may be inevitable that sometimes the best experts in a field happen to have worked in industry, Michael Taylor’s close associations with Monsanto and past public stances on agricultural issues seem to be diametrically opposed to the purpose of the FDA. Frederick Ravid, the creator of the petition criticizing Michael Taylor, emphasizes it in the body of the petition’s text.

“Taylor was in charge of policy for Monsanto’s now-discredited GM bovine growth hormone (rBGH), which is opposed by many medical and hospital organizations,” Ravid wrote. “It was Michael Taylor who pursued a policy that milk from rBGH-treated cows should not be labeled with disclosures.”

Taylor’s current position in the FDA makes him responsible for overseeing U.S. food labeling, creating a strategy for food safety and planning new food safety legislation. Prior to his appointment, his position did not exist.

SignOn.org, where the petition was posted, is sponsored by MoveOn.org Civic Action. “With over 5 million members across America, we have the strength — together — to stand up to Washington and its corporate lobbyists in order to achieve real progressive change for real people,” the website states. “We are democracy in action.”

The philosophy of this website and the example of the Michael Taylor petition may be tools the American people should learn to embrace.

Though it is still questionable whether such Internet tools can be successfully used for the people to gain adequate leverage against large, well-funded corporate interests, one thing is for sure— they help keep an eye on government officials through the dissemination of information and public collaboration.

The more tools we can use to let them know we’re watching, the more they’ll need to watch themselves. And if they’re doing an honest job, that thought shouldn’t bother a government official one bit.

Kristen Kiluk can be reached kkiluk@umich.edu. Follow her on Twitter at @Kristen_Kiluk.

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