The Internet Election

The Internet looms large in this presidential election. This has been true in various ways for several cycles, but it’s more true now than it ever has been.

Since 2004, the Internet has played a part in political campaigning. This ball started rolling in a small way in 2002, thanks to the takeoff of blogs as policy and political media after the 9/11 attack. I consider 2002 to be the Golden Age of blogging because it featured a relatively small number of blogs with a relatively high level of IQ and very little partisanship. Leading blogs in those days included Jeff Jarvis’s BuzzMachine, Megan McArdle’s “Live from the WTC”, Matt Welch’s War Blog, Ken Layne’s blog, and blogs by other smart people such as Mickey Kaus, Andrew Sullivan, Michael Totten, Nick Denton, Iain Murray, punk rocker Doctor Frank, and Glenn Reynolds. Reynolds’ Instapundit was the clearing house for 9/11 information on the day of the attack and for weeks to come. [Note: Check the Wayback Machine for the blogroll on my personal blog from 2003 for a list if you’re into media history.]

A Partisan Web

The 2004 election saw a shift away from non-partisan analysis to red meat for the electorate: this was the period that gave rise to Daily Kos, Powerline, Eschaton, and Talking Points Memo, properties that have come to play pivotal roles in the political process. Howard Dean was the first presidential candidate to invest in blogging as an organizing tool. We’ve come a long way since then, with social media, Twitter, and analytics playing major roles in campaigning now.

But the Internet doesn’t just intersect politics and policy in campaigning: it is now shaped by actions taken by politicians when they take office. So candidates are expected to articulate tech policy platforms and respond to questions from voters on a wide range of Internet issues while campaigning and while governing. After the Internet helped candidate Obama win the 2008 election:

Obama owes his victory to the internet. He used the web more effectively than any prior national candidate, harnessing its organizing power to vault over party favorite Hillary Clinton and become the first black presumptive presidential nominee. With an enormous internet-driven donor base of 1.5 million people, more than 800,000 of whom have accounts on Obama’s social networking website, Obama is the first internet candidate to win mainstream success. His online supporters have created more than 30,000 events to promote his candidacy, some of which are still underway in the last primary states of Montana and South Dakota.

…he returned the favor by asking (or maybe “directing”) the FCC to re-regulate some Internet services that had been deregulated 15 years ago.

Luddite Candidates

So we’re in a curious election now (heh) where the two leading candidates seem to be challenged by an inability to use technology in their day to day lives. Politico’s Nancy Scola goes so far as to describe Clinton and Trump as Luddites compared to the incumbent once known as “the first Blackberry president.” Both candidates have been known to have their staffs print web pages for them to read:

Clinton, now 68, also emailed a department staffer to ask what time the CBS drama “The Good Wife” aired and later to request a paper copy of a website news item. “Pls print for me and deliver to me,” Clinton wrote in the winter of 2013, attaching a web address. “This links to the front page of the Washington Post,” the employee responded. “Is there a particular article that you are looking for?”


[Trump] has boasted that he hardly ever sends emails — and, like Clinton, he often relies on staff to print news articles off the Internet. “I’m just not a believer in email,” Trump said during a news conference Wednesday during which he criticized Clinton’s use of a private server when she was secretary of state.

When the campaigns face Internet policy issues, they often stumble. Some of these stumbles are small but telling, such as promises to remove porn from the Internet, something that’s never going to happen in our lifetimes. Some are more severe, such as their mutual desires to weaken encryption in order to help law enforcement. And some are absolutely comical, such as Trump’s desire to ban terrorists from the Internet. And we’ve already seen hacks of certain key campaign resources attached to the Internet, most recently on the Democratic side. This makes me wonder if Clinton is about to ask China for help infiltrating the Trump resources.

Policy Positions

While neither campaign seems to be doing a great job of understanding the Internet’s limitations , they’re nonetheless brimming with ideas about making the Internet – and the whole tech sector of the economy – better in various ways. Trump almost never talks about the Internet, but his party platform includes very specific positions on “Protecting Internet Freedom”, using the E-verify program against illegal aliens, net neutrality regulations, sexual predators, China’s lack of free Internet speech, Internet access in Cuba, cybersecurity, “Confronting Internet Tyranny,” and competition in broadband markets.

We can’t say whether a Trump administration would follow through on these positions, but they’re quite detailed and generally practical ideas.

Clinton has released a long and detailed Initiative on Technology and Innovation that strikes all the chords that have animated Obama’s tech policy: investing in STEM education, job training for displaced workers, funding for startups (especially those led by minorities, youngsters, and women), skilled worker immigration, the R&D tax credit, government-financed infrastructure, support for 5G networks, and fighting for Internet freedom abroad while clamping down on porn and hacking domestically.

We can be certain that a Clinton administration won’t be able to follow through on its laundry list of proposals completely, because the list is too long and too expensive, but some of these ideas will probably become real.

What Does This all Mean?

What can we make of tech policy proposals offered by candidates with very limited ability to use technology in their own lives and campaigns? Probably not much. Many people regard President Bill Clinton as the best president on tech policy in recent years, and he was even more technically-challenged than his wife. President Obama may well be a technology buff, but his Internet policy is based on a model created by UK Prime Minister Thatcher when she privatized and unbundled Her Majesty’s telephone company in 1981   A number of policy wonks on the Democratic side now openly pine for a new government monopoly on fiber optic cables and ducts because net neutrality is only the beginning:

Now that the courts have given the FCC authority to regulate internet access, it’s time to exercise that authority. The optimal U.S. approach: put in place city-owned (and, ultimately, federally-regulated) conduits that reach all houses and businesses, or at least get very close to them, and fill them with city-owned dark fiber. (Even insisting on “dark air,” or conduits with lots of space running everywhere, will help a lot.) Require dark fiber assets to be shared with competitors at reasonable prices. Require new construction, apartment buildings, and business buildings to have neutral points in their basements where any network operator can connect to this dark fiber.

This idea is not gaining traction as the closer we get to 5G the less important the final connection to the home or office becomes. But that’s not to say that it’s not happening in semi-rural communities with poor networks, because it is. But in many cases these networks will be surpassed by 5G before they’re even completed.

The two large questions that strike me as most important after local infrastructure are cybersecurity and international Internet governance. While everybody talks about these issues, the technical basis of the discussion is often paper-thin. Security, for example, is an ongoing problem because the Internet was not designed to be a secure system. We’re not going to effectively secure the Internet by training legions of security engineers because the design of the Internet will always work against them. Rather, we need to invest in a new Internet that incorporates security from the ground up and dispenses with the idea that the simple research network we call the Internet today is up to the job. [See podcasts with John Day and Neil Davies for the reasoning.]

We have no choice but to bail water until this new Internet arrives, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think the TCP/IP Internet can ever be safe and secure.

Similarly, the United States will never be in a position to dictate Internet policy to other countries. The Internet is embedded in a local culture and very little of the world shares America’s values. Other countries are only willing to import US technology to the extent that it’s compatible with their values, and the Internet is no exception.

So regardless of who wins in November, the same battles we’ve been fighting since the breakup of Ma Bell will probably continue, but most likely with more emotion and even less reason. Sigh.