For all the non-stop coverage of the 2008 presidential race, one thing that hasn’t gotten much play is the candidates’ positions on technology and the Internet. Perhaps it’s not as sexy as Obama high-fiving terrorists or Palin spending a billion dollars on high heels, but it is pretty important to the future of our society.
McCain’s positions on these issues are pretty middle-of-the-road and watered-down (although he does oppose net neutrality). It appears to not be a high priority for a man who openly admits that he doesn’t use e-mail.
Barack Obama, however, has a pretty detailed, rather progressive platform pertaining to media, technology and the Web. All other politics aside, Obama’s positions on this should excite even the most cynical Web geeks, journalists and citizens in general.
It’s worth remembering that the people who invented democracy viewed the free flow of information as absolutely critical to the success of their experiment. This fact was not lost on America’s Founding Fathers, who remarked that “our liberty cannot be guarded but by liberty of the press” (Thomas Jefferson) and that any attempt at democracy without widespread public access to information would amount to “a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both.” (James Madison)
When Madison and Jefferson got all giddy about a free press, they were literally referring to the printing press. When the Constitution and its Bill of Rights were drafted, they didn’t know about Google. They didn’t even have Alta Vista or Meta-Crawler. The technological advances that we all take for granted were utterly inconceivable when democracy was dreamed up.
So, if the means of acquiring information are now exponentially more sophisticated and instantaneous than they were back then, shouldn’t it follow that public participation in government – true democracy – is now more attainable than ever?
Maybe. It depends on how well the government embraces technology and new media.
To be sure, the Internet has already begun to have a dramatic impact on the news media, politics and the flow of information, even without the aid of government policy. Imagine how things will look in 10 years if the government jumps on the Internet bandwagon we’ve all been gleefully riding for years.
Some of Obama’s proposals:
- Obama proposes making essential data about government programs and spending readily available online for citizens to view and analyze.
- Under the Obama plan, citizens will be solicited for input on some (they don’t say which) important public policy decisions via the Web.
- Obama will require his cabinet members to webcast internal meetings and deliberations online, as well as provide the means for the public to participate in such meetings.
- Any “non-emergency” legislation will be available on the White House website for five days so that citizens can read and comment on it before it gets signed.
- Modern web technologies like blogs, wikis and social networking sites will be used for cross-departmental communication and collaboration within the federal government.
- All of the above will be overseen by the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer (CTO), whom Obama will appoint. This new cabinet-level position will ensure adherence to the latest standards and best practices in technology across the federal government. Anybody who’s ever tried to navigate any government Web site knows how important this is.
It is worth noting that although issues like media ownership reform and net neutrality have begun to capture some public attention in the last five years, there is no overwhelming public demand for things like next-generation broadband adoption, the first-ever appointment of a federal CTO or using the Web to make government more transparent.
In other words, these are all things that either candidate could easily get away with not promising, or even talking much about. But the Obama campaign has decided to take these issues seriously on its own accord, consulting tech industry heavyweights and paling around with Google’s leadership.
Only time will tell, of course, if President Obama will make good on all of these promises. But the mere fact that he’s even making them is a pretty good sign.