Law in the Internet Society
Technology as a Tool for User-Friendly Government? William Hughes

As Inauguration Day approaches, many have begun to ponder the tenor President-Elect Obama’s first term will assume. Much of the dialogue has focused on national security issues, international defense initiatives, healthcare policies, and the most effective means by which to stimulate the flailing economy. While all of these pressing concerns are considered, a growing minority of commentators are for good reason also beginning to articulate the indelible role which technology will play in the new administration. Even before his emergence as a seriously viable presidential candidate, Mr. Obama utilized internet technology in the most revolutionary of ways, from establishing a presence in MySpace? ’s online town square known as the Impact channel to developing a system through which Facebook subscribers could “donate” their statuses to his campaign as a way to disseminate support. As history indicates, this is hardly the first time technology has played a crucial role in the political process. Indeed, in 1960, the first ever televised presidential debate between Kennedy and Nixon is commonly regarded as the turning point in what would become a presidential victory for Kennedy. As well, the radio broadcasts of host Rush Limbaugh in 1994 are frequently cited as a crucial component of the Republican midterm elections that year. Finally, in 2004, the internet site MoveOn? .org became a venerable force in soliciting campaign contributions for the Democratic Party that election year. However, as he emphasized during his campaign, Mr. Obama has plans to utilize technology as more than a tool for galvanizing voters for elections. As former FCC Chairman William Kennard recently acknowledged in an August 2008 NPR broadcast, Mr. Obama’s position on technology may be characterized as activist, with an understanding that the future of the economy depends upon ensuring that Americans have access to technology and are empowered to use it. In light of this, the question therefore becomes whether as President, Mr. Obama will employ the technology to which many attribute his victory and, if so, the challenges he may face.

During his campaign, Mr. Obama notably called for the creation of a Cabinet-level position such as a chief technology officer who would make sure the federal government imports the best technology tools from the private sector. Ultimately, such a person is to make sure government is more transparent and that there is outreach to the public to get the best ideas pertinent to running the country. Realistically, this new cabinet position will likely serve as a liaison for improving efficiency among agencies and/or setting forth policies in emerging areas such as copyright and intellectual property. Perhaps more significant than the identity of this technology “czar” is the fact that, unlike essentially every President preceding Mr. Obama who has promised to seek political guidance from the public, today we possess the technology capable of such. Not only this, but as his aforementioned election strategies attest, the President-elect has demonstrated a keen understanding of just how to utilize these capabilities. As a State Senator, Mr. Obama supported a Clinton administration plan to provide all schoolchildren access to the Internet at school, in alliance with a belief that the government should create open networks to allow all people access to the online domain. Even in 2006, Mr. Obama began work to pass the Federal Funding Accountability Act, which set up a searchable web site to provide the public with access to information on federal grants, contracts, loans, and insurance payments. His office has already set up, which outlines to the public his agenda, the planned transition process, suggestions for the beginning of a new chief executive blog, as well as a forum for citizens to directly submit and vote on ideas about “the biggest challenges facing our country.”

espite his history propagating laws addressing such issues as web access to government spending and exploiting technology during his campaign to spread information more effectively, Mr. Obama will likely be forced to contend with some considerable legal challenges if he wishes to continue technological integration. One of the challenges relevant to legal discourse appears to be how he will continue to use the personal data gathered from over 10 million supporters during the campaign in light of federal election rules which require the President to maintain open lines of communication with all citizens. Consequently, like past Presidents, he will have to use the WhiteHouse? .gov web site to guarantee inclusion of all people. In order to maintain communication with the constituents who helped elect him, the administration is considering setting up a nonprofit organization that would purchase the supporter lists from the campaign, including names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses. This nonprofit would serve as a tax-exempt conduit that could unilaterally encourage large groups of supporters to push legislators on policy issues by inundating them with phone calls and emails, or arranging demonstrations on Facebook to push for initiatives important to the administration. Thus, if Mr. Obama is indeed successful with this undertaking, it will be possible to keep his supporters involved in the administration, even if it is to their chagrin.

The Freedom of Information Act, which makes any official correspondence from the President property of the Office and eventually accessible to the public, is another factor which could potentially curtail the administration’s efforts to improve communication through technology. In light of these concerns, news stories have already emerged highlighting the impending need for the President-elect to cease use of his Blackberry. Although this does make for good news fodder, with respect to the new President’ ability to implement a more public-oriented administration, it seems to be of tangential importance. Essentially, adherence to his promise to allow citizens to have a bigger role in the decision-making processes will not rely so much on interaction with the President. Rather, it will depend upon the effectiveness of those online communities and the integration of technology with the governmental decision-making process, which if successful could lead to the proverbial brave new world in U.S. governance.

  • This essay feels rushed and perfunctory. Errors, such as making the Presidential Records Act into the Freedom of Information Act, intensify the impression. If this essay is to be a credit to its author, it needs both a more serious effort to assess near-term the Administration's "electronic government" objectives and resources, and a thesis we can understand as you more carefully develop it.


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r2 - 08 Feb 2009 - 19:34:35 - EbenMoglen
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