July 19, 2024

Obama's Digital Policy

The Iowa caucuses, less than a week away, will kick off the briefest and most intense series of presidential primaries in recent history. That makes it a good time to check in on what the candidates are saying about digital technologies. Between now and February 5th (the 23-state tsunami of primaries that may well resolve the major party nominations), we’ll be taking a look.

First up: Barack Obama. A quick glance at the sites of other candidates suggests that Obama is an outlier – none of the other major players has gone into anywhere near the level of detail that he has in their official campaign output. That may mean we’ll be tempted to spend a disproportionate amount of time talking about him – but if so, I guess that’s the benefit he reaps by paying attention. Michael Arrington’s TechCrunch tech primary provides the best summary I’ve found, compiled from other sources, of candidates’ positions on tech issues, and we may find ourselves relying on that over the next few weeks.

For Obama, we have a detailed “Technology and Innovation” white paper. It spans a topical area that Europeans often refer to as ICTs – information and communications technologies. That means basically anything digital, plus the analog ambit of the FCC (media concentration, universal service and so on). Along the way, other areas get passing mention – immigration of high tech workers, trade policy, energy efficiency.

Net neutrality may be the most talked about tech policy issue in Washington – it has generated a huge amount of constituent mail, perhaps as many as 600,000 constituent letters. Obama is clear on this: He says requiring ISPs to provide “accurate and honest information about service plans” that may violate neutrality is “not enough.” He wants a rule to stop network operators from charging “fees to privilege the content or applications of some web sites and Internet applications over others.” I think that full transparency about non-neutral Internet service may indeed be enough, an idea I first got from a comment on this blog, but in any case it’s nice to have a clear statement of view.

Where free speech collides with child protection, Obama faces the structural challenge, common to Democrats, of simultaneously appeasing both the entertainment industry and concerned moms. Predictably, he ends up engaging in a little wishful thinking:

On the Internet, Obama will require that parents have the option of receiving parental controls software that not only blocks objectionable Internet content but also prevents children from revealing personal information through their home computer.

The idealized version of such software, in which unwanted communications are stopped while desirable ones remain unfettered, is typically quite far from what the technology can actually provide. The software faces a design tradeoff between being too broad, in which case desirable use is stopped, and too narrow, in which case undesirable online activity is permitted. That might be why Internet filtering software, despite being available commercially, isn’t already ubiquitous. Given that parents can already buy it, Obama’s aim to “require that parents have the option of receiving” such software sounds like a proposal for the software to be subsidized or publicly funded; I doubt that would make it better.

On privacy, the Obama platform again reflects a structural problem. Voters seem eager for a President who will have greater concern for statutory law than the current incumbent does. But some of the secret and possibly illegal reductions of privacy that have gone on at the NSA and elsewhere may actually (in the judgment of those privy to the relevant secrets) be indispensable. So Obama, like many others, favors “updating surveillance laws.” He’ll follow the law, in other words, but first he wants it modified so that it can be followed without unduly tying his hands. That’s very likely the most reasonable kind of view a presidential candidate could have, but it doesn’t tell us how much privacy citizens will enjoy if he gets his way. The real question, unanswered in this platform, is exactly which updates Obama would favor. He himself is probably reserving judgment until, briefed by the intelligence community, he can competently decide what updates are needed.

My favorite part of the document, by far, is the section on government transparency. (I’d be remiss were I not to shamelessly plug the panel on exactly this topic at CITP’s upcoming January workshop.) The web is enabling amazing new levels, and even new kinds, of sunlight to accompany the exercise of public power. If you haven’t experienced MAPlight, which pairs campaign contribution data with legislators’ votes, then you should spend the next five minutes watching this video. Josh Tauberer, who launched Govtrack.us, has pointed out that one major impediment to making these tools even better is the reluctance of government bodies to adopt convenient formats for the data they publish. A plain text page (typical fare on existing government sites like THOMAS) meets the letter of the law, but an open format with rich metadata would see the same information put to more and better use.

Obama’s stated position is to make data available “online in universally accessible formats,” a clear nod in this direction. He also calls for live video feeds of government proceedings. One more radical proposal, camoflaged among these others, is

…pilot programs to open up government decision-making and involve the public in the work of agencies, not simply by soliciting opinions, but by tapping into the vast and distributed expertise of the American citizenry to help government make more informed decisions.

I’m not sure what that means, but it sounds exciting. If I wanted to start using wikis to make serious public policy decisions – and needed to make the idea sound simple and easy – that’s roughly how I might put it.


  1. Unless a candidate firmly comes out against 18 USC 2257 they cannot be considered to be a candidate who upholds freedom of speech on the Internet, period.

  2. In this video Obama spelled out some of this points live, while addressing the tech/IT crowd in form of an audience of Google employees and Google CEO Eric Schmidt:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m4yVlPqeZwo (November 14, 2007, 54:31 minutes. Part of the Candidates@Google series)

  3. I don’t believe that Obama really understands the technology but he has just that bit more understanding than his competitors, to give him an edge. That’s a good thing, because on the whole Obama would make a good president. The rest of the human race would sleep a little bit deeper, to see GWB hand the reign over to Obama.

    With the content filtering of Internet pages, the Australian government has struggled with this one and their answer is pretty simple: roll out a solution with as much pomp and ceremony as possible and hope that it takes a while for the “concerned mums” to wake up and realise that the proposed solution does absolutely nothing at all. Then when they do wake up, roll out a new solution with as much pomp and ceremony as possible… and so it iterates. It’s a system that has worked so far. I’m happy with it so far. Try reading Tom Wood on this matter (search for thewoodverdict).

    As for government transparency and statistical models of campaign donations, the Greens party tried that in Australia (see: http://www.democracy4sale.org/ ) but John Howard merely responded by changing the non-disclosure threshold from $1500 up to $10500 to avoid any scrutiny. Mind you, John Howard got the boot and the Greens have become major players in the Australian Federal Senate so maybe that speaks volumes.

    I would really like to have a website that provides fast breakdown of government spending with yearly historical figures, maybe Obama can add that to his campaign promises. Better still if, when federal money was paid to state programs, the earmarked money could be tracked from federal to state in one easy website. Most people I talk to, you ask them where tax money is spent, they can come up with, “roads” and that’s about it. When you tell them that the big roads are mostly privately owned toll-roads and the small roads are maintained by local councils on a shoestring budget and then ask where the tax is spent, they say “welfare”.

  4. Regarding “If I wanted to start using wikis to make serious public policy decisions …

    You mean the winner would be the clique with the most powerful adminstrators on its side? Or who had the ear of the Imperial Executive? Isn’t that what we have now?

  5. I’m totally into Obama and pretty much have been since he announced his candidacy, so my opinion is obviously biased. Having said that I’d like to point out that the “young guy with no experience” is the only one who sees “web stuff” as part of our daily lives. If he didn’t he wouldn’t have published the page linked in the beginning of this article.

    On the other hand we see how Ron Paul has actually enjoyed the benefit of letting the web be the web. Without his “let it go and see where it goes” mindset about how his website runs he would not have enjoyed his 2 MASSIVE fund raising days.

    BTW thanks David for doing what you do. Not sure where I found your site, but you’ve been in my aggregator ever since. Some of your writings anger me, and some thrills me, but the source is always pleasant and well written.