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Mr. Obama goes to the Internet

From his SecondLife campaign headquarters to his comprehensive technology and innovation proposal, Barack Obama exudes an familiarity with the internet rare among his colleagues in the federal government. Though always measured, Obama seems “cool” in quite a different sense when discussing tech issues, something bordering on tech geek hip. The Boston Globe has amicably remarked that Obama possesses “cyber sensibility” and his popular, though debated, position in the “net neutrality” debate (about whether internet providers can discriminate against certain kinds of data) is just one such example.

His vision of the internet as an empowering tool is matched by his populism. His plan to beef up rural broadband access has the familiar ring of FDR’s Tennessee Valley Authority, a federal program designed to bring electricity to isolated Appalachia.

Perhaps more important the specifics, however, are that his ideas seem to grasp not only the current importance of technology as an interface for democracy (take his staggering internet fundraising abilities, for example), but also a more visionary projection of how the internet will make government more transparent, efficient and responsive to the electorate.

The story of how Obama tapped the internet for fundraising has by now been thoroughly covered, re-hashed and debated. It earned him unique admirers, such as the conservative columnist George Will. Will was quick to point out the irony in McCain’s complaints that Obama’s massive fundraising was distorting politics with money, when the bulk of Obama’s war chest came from donations averaging around 86$ (in September) from thousands of first-time donors. The unstated implication to Will’s remarks is that the internet, when coupled with the First Amendment right to express support for a candidate financially, actually increases civic engagement and strengthens democracy.

If the new Obama administration can follow through on their promises with the same alacrity and skill they applied to fundraising, there is much to look forward to in the future of internet democracy. Yet, as the Boston Globe noted today, there are likely to be significant obstacles and interests working against his plans as well. Rural telephone companies are likely to oppose diverting some of their subsidies to build broadband networks. ISPs such as Comcast, who have tried to limit or eliminate the taxing bandwidth usage of torrent downloads and are now fighting the FCC in court, have a vested interest in opposing net neutrality legislation.

Obama’s various “sunshine” proposals are likely to be opposed by bureaucrats and lobbyists, who no doubt will find citizen oversight of the federal government alarming. Obama has even proposed video taping meetings, making large swaths of data available and encouraging periodic town hall sessions online, so that average citizens can participate in the workings of the government, even if they live far from the shadow of D.C. In particular, the proposed grant/earmark search engine, which allows citizens to track money in Washington, is likely to find lobbyists fighting for their livelihoods.

More fundamental problems with the proposals themselves may also crop up. While it is laudable to want to open the dark and mysterious cogs of the federal government (an old history teacher once described it to me as an industrial sausage machine), it is unclear if crowd-sourcing the bureaucracy will necessarily yield better solutions or increase participation. One possibility is that lobbyists will simply adapt themselves to working town hall meetings and “astro-turfing.” At the same time, one of the vivid lessons of this election is the internet’s power to disseminate and reinforce democratic falsehoods, like the myriad conspiracy theories about Barack Obama’s secret Muslim identity.

Yet, one hopes that this cynicism is unfounded. There is also evidence to suggest that many potential voters used the internet this election season to cut through spin and fact check their candidates. Maybe Obama’s far-reaching proposals to make government more responsive and transparent are as legislatively achievable as they would be transformative of democracy.

The “sunshine” proposals in particular have a certain Jeffersonian quality to them. A government close to the citizenry, in “ward republics” as Jefferson called local government, would be shaped more accurately by its immediate needs and demands. Barack Obama’s technology platform encourages such semiotic democracy, harnessing the internet to bring government decision-making into our living rooms, and out of the hands of the powers which have traditionally shaped the Republic’s discourse (newspapers, politicians, big business). It just might be a revolution.

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3 Responses to “Mr. Obama goes to the Internet”

  1. » The Internet and Fascism I&D Blog Says:

    […] plans for the democratization of broadband internet access (for more on the plan itself, see my summary of Obama’s technology platform). Keen’s chief worry seems to be that universal […]

  2. » Vivek Kundra, Possible Obama Tech Czar I&D Blog Says:

    […] puts him quite clearly into the orbit of Obama’s vision of the internet and citizenship (see my piece from a few months ago for more), which emphasizes broad access, open information and creative tech […]

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    […] I have written about in previous posts, the Obama camp seems particularly keen to bridge digital divides. They have talked about funding […]