If Barack Obama is the "first Internet president," that designation carries with it an unprecedented set of challenges and opportunities. In an interview with NationalJournal.com's Amy Harder in December, new media consultant and former New York Times futurist Michael Rogers discusses why the new administration may be poised to overcome the security obstacles of online governance while also facilitating Internet innovation. Edited excerpts follow. Visit the archives page for more Insider Interviews.
NJ: How might the government use the Internet to facilitate crowdsourced legislation, such as a wiki-bill? Do you see any problems with ambitious ideas like this?
Rogers: All this is terrific, but if we're not providing Internet service of a sufficient quality to much of the country, then I don't know how far down the road we should go in making Internet connections part of the cost of taking part in democracy. It's just an issue to keep in mind -- to what extent are we excluding people from the discussion? That's not a reason not to do it. It is a reason to really make sure the digital divide doesn't exist in this country.
Let's assume we're making progress on that front. Then I think there's a lot that can be done. I believe it was in last year's, or the year before, Australian federal election -- a group of candidates ran on an Internet platform where they actually said, if elected, they would cast votes based on what the people who elected them felt was right by engaging them online whenever a bill came up. They didn't win, but it caused a lot of interesting discussion.... The implicit promise was, "If you vote for me, you'll register on my site and you'll become one of my constituents. My subset of constituents will be allowed to vote on every proposition that comes before me."
NJ: What are some security and regulatory challenges Obama's administration may face online?
Rogers: If the Obama administration really wants to make use of the Internet as a vehicle for government, we need to make it secure and reliable, and it's not secure yet. Cyber criminals are really out in front of security technology....
The Obama administration, over these next four to eight years, has the opportunity to actually bring some real intelligent regulation to the Internet. Right now, the Internet has been allowed to be a very laissez-faire place. The government has really not regulated it much. That's a good thing. But it's becoming such a crucial part of society financially. It runs our big companies. It's as important as the interstate highway system. But there's a lot of federal law that regulates the interstate highway system.
The Obama administration, compared to the previous one, is actually in a good position because they're very aware of civil liberties. They're very aware of all the issues that are of concern when you talk about more regulation. They're in a good position to say, "Here's how we can strengthen the security on the Internet." It involves things like firm legal identities, which I think is probably inevitable at some point over the next 10 years on the Internet -- the equivalent to what I have in the real world, which is a driver's license or a passport. The anonymity of the Internet is a great thing, but it's one of the things that have made security so difficult.
NJ: How do you think the Obama administration could use the Internet to, hypothetically, pass a sweeping legislative package?
Rogers: His campaign has understood the Internet better than anyone to date and used it brilliantly. Ever since 1996, we've said, "When will the first president be elected by the Internet, the way Kennedy was so advantaged by television?" While I don't think we can totally say that Obama's victory was because of the Internet, I mean, he's the first Internet president. I would say that much of what the tools that his campaign used -- ranging from text messaging to the local meet-ups to the various kinds of blogging -- would be pretty effective in mobilizing people in just an informational way. I would imagine there's some point at which there'd be questions about who is paying for what some people might see as lobbying.
NJ: How could Obama mobilize that network?
Rogers: I think it's just old-fashioned retail politics. Then people are going to have to e-mail, or write, or visit their congresspeople. Ultimately, he's trying to persuade a much smaller audience -- Congress.
NJ: Is there anything that Republicans can do to counter this kind of coordinated online advocacy campaign?
Rogers: I think they have to take up exactly the same tools. They're going to have to use the Internet just the same way. It's very interesting, if you go back in the early history of the Web -- back in the mid-'90s or so -- groups like the National Rifle Association were the real leaders in using the Internet, because back then it tended to be more well-to-do white men who used the Internet. And the NRA was very powerful in using an e-mail list early on to put pressure on congresspeople because they had these incredible e-mail lists. They were way ahead of most of the liberal groups because the liberal groups tended to have younger constituents, sometimes of color, who didn't have the same kind of Internet fluency back in '94 and '95 -- and even further back before that, the AOL/Prodigy days. This is not a new thing. One could argue that the Republican side of the aisle did it first many years ago.
NJ: Let's say Obama did employ strategies in social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and the like. How vulnerable do you think these sites are to jamming or coming off as simply noise, not generating useful information?
Rogers: They're all vulnerable. It goes back to that security question. That just comes with the territory. It'll certainly be a bigger effect if it's open to the whole American public. I'm just thinking, in the case of a wiki -- you can ban people from Wikipedia, and they do. If it's a federal Wiki that's discussing something, it'll become a legal issue pretty quickly if you start banning people. That's why they're going to have to [ensure legal online identities].... Right now, if someone is spamming your blog, you can identify your IP address and you block them. But one will have to be a little more careful about, is this person making reasonable arguments or are they spamming the wiki?
NJ: Looking into the future five, 10 years, what are some out-of-the-box ideas you could see a president doing with the Internet?
Rogers: There will be interesting possibilities for virtual town hall meetings where he or others appear on video and lots of us are on video, too, with our webcams. It's out in the future and it's going to take some work thinking through on how to do this. But once much of the country has decent broadband going both upstream and downstream, there should be ways to create virtual town hall meetings with more participation in which he actually appears as an audio-video image.