By Tom Still

MADISON – The television ad in which George Bush and Bill Clinton urge Americans to come to aid of tsunami victims is unique, not only because the appeal comes from two former presidents, but because of how they ask people to give.

The era of e-relief has dawned.

Bush and Clinton point viewers to, the web site for the U.S. Freedom Corps, which is helping to coordinate the millions of dollars that have streamed in over the Internet since the world learned of the tragedy in Southeast Asia. On the Freedom Corps web site, browsers can find contact information – including Internet addresses – for about 80 private aid groups.

Relief has been slow to reach some victims of the earthquake and tsunami, which killed about 150,000 people from 11 nations, because the epicenter is remote and so much of the transportation system in hard-hit areas was destroyed. Help would be much slower coming, however, if not for the time-saving force of the Internet.

Online donors have given in record-shattering amounts in the wake of the Sumatran earthquake and the killer waves it unleashed, with tens and perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars flowing to emergency groups through transactions on their web sites.

A spokesman for Kintera Inc., a San Diego web hosting firm used by some of the non-profit aid groups, predicted record amounts of money would be raised online.

“The generosity of donors is unprecedented and the Internet is making this a reality,” John Hartman of Kintera told InternetWeek.

Most Internet donors use credit cards, but payments services such as PayPal and online banking accounts are also being used. Because the money is sent electronically, organizations such as UNICEF have access to the cash with 72 hours. That’s compared to several weeks when the money comes through direct mail, which is still the largest donation channel for most aid groups.

“It’s a very quick process,” UNICEF’s Ted Ledwith told InternetWeek. “It can only increase the amount of assistance that will be available for emergency supplies and the speed at which they can be transported.”

With tens of thousands of tsunami victims — many of them children — injured, hungry or ill, every hour and day saved equates to lives saved. By speeding dollars to the right place, the Internet is helping save the lives of people who may never have used a computer or gone online themselves.

To be sure, there will be stories about how the Internet has contributed to the misery in Southeast Asia. The most likely scenario will be sex traffickers using the Internet to help spirit homeless or orphaned children into slavery. But that will be the exception, not the rule. The ability of the Internet to accelerate the human response to disaster will have been demonstrated.

Why have donors in the United States or Canada turned to the Internet to give? It may be because the Internet has further reduced the size of the world, making it possible for a nurse in Pewaukee to feel a kinship with a mother in Phuket, Thailand. For better and worse, the Internet has erased global barriers. It has allowed people separated by 12,000 miles to easily communicate. It is no surprise, then, that it would also be the vehicle through which compassion is expressed.

In less than 20 years, the Internet has revolutionized the computer and communications world. The invention of the telegraph, telephone, radio and computer set the stage for this unprecedented integration of capabilities. The Internet is simultaneously a world-wide broadcasting tool, a mechanism for disseminating information, and a medium for collaboration and interaction between people and their computers without regard for geography.

During the height of the “tech bust” a few years ago, Milwaukee venture capitalist John Byrnes said the short-term value of the Internet had been dramatically overestimated and its long-term value dramatically underestimated. The disaster in Southeast Asia is proving him right on both counts.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.