Digital Politics Comes of Age

Pundits, pols, and political scientists will spend months and years dissecting this presidential election.  But one fact is unmistakably clear: We have seen the future of politics.  And it’s digital.

Digital technologies played a bigger and more decisive role in the outcome of this election than ever before.  For a confluence of reasons, they worked spectacularly well for Barack Obama.

Consider some of the particulars: The respective campaigns relied on sophisticated marketing data from commercial firms that tracked Internet viewing habits, political leanings, and issues of interest to likely voters.  In addition to making it easy to donate money online, the candidates’ websites placed cookies in visitors’ computers, making it easy for the campaigns to keep track of potential voters and to target them at the online sites they were likely to frequent.

The campaigns collected the cell phone numbers of thousands of participants at political rallies and the national conventions.  They set up dedicated social network sites for their candidates, and individuals set up scores of independent socnets and blogs of their own.  The campaigns barraged their supporters with e-mails.

Barack Obama took things a step further by famously announcing his running mate via text message.  And his campaign even embedded Obama ads in video games. 

Okay, I think the running mate gambit was a gimmick.  But it seems to me that Obama clearly had the edge in using digital technologies more effectively than his competition in both the primary and general elections. 

Why?  Obama ran a young person’s campaign.  He appealed to the young demographic with his charisma and calls for change in a way the Republicans couldn’t touch.  And he was wildly successful at reaching young people via the digital technologies that are their lifelines.  They were able to interact not only with his campaign, but with their friends and online communities – and to extend that online involvement to grassroots participation on the street.

Obama has given us the best model of what digital politics will look like henceforth: using the Internet and personal electronic devices to find potential supporters; to keep track of and stay in touch with them; to make it easy for them to donate their money; and to “activate” them to work on the candidate’s behalf.  

There are a lot of factors that determine the success of a political campaign, starting with the amount of money raised.  There are the strategic decisions large and small, the quantity and quality of advertising (especially on TV), the effectiveness of local organizing, personal charisma, the tone of media coverage … oh, and even the candidates’ stances on the issues.

Maybe it’s a stretch to say that Obama won because he did the better job of mobilizing young voters via digital technologies.  But I suspect it’s not a big stretch.

Sheer Lunacy: Taxing the Technologies of Freedom

Imagine that someone came up with an idea to solve the “problem” of information overload (a.k.a. “too much information”) by levying a tax on the technologies that have sparked our information explosion.  Making it too expensive for many people to blog or otherwise send and receive information through digital and Internet-based technologies would not only reduce a lot of superfluous, self-indulgent electronic clutter, but would reverse the fragmentation of opinion threatening our democracy, the theory would go.

Well, someone has come up with just such a scheme.  An environmental attorney named Dusty Horwitt published his incredibly outlandish idea in the Aug. 24 Outlook section of the Washington Post.  (“If Everyone’s Talking, Who Will Listen?”)  He proposes a “progressive energy tax” that would “make the technologies that overproduce information more expensive and less widespread.”

Anyone who has the faintest sensibility about the free flow of information must find this notion not only preposterous, but repulsive.

Forget, for a minute, that such a scheme would be utterly unworkable.  (How, for instance, would the government tax the electricity going into your computer differently than the electricity keeping the beer in your refrigerator cold?)  And we’ll leave it to our economist friends like Harold Furchtgott-Roth to point out the fatal flaws from an economic standpoint.

From a First Amendment perspective, Mr. Horwitt’s proposal is simply horrendous.  Restricting the means of disseminating information is tantamount to restricting information itself.  And information is speech, almost all of which is protected from government interference by the First Amendment. 

It is freedom of speech, and the free flow of information, that distinguishes the United States from China, totalitarian regimes, and most third-world countries.  Restricting the availability of information is a totalitarian tactic that is the antithesis of democracy, not something undertaken in support of it, as Mr. Horwitt alleges. 

Under Mr. Horwitt’s scheme, who would decide how much information was enough? Perhaps we would need a Ministry of Information to make those decisions.  And if the quantity of information were regulated, would the regulation of content be far behind?

In an earlier age, maybe Mr. Horwitt would have favored a stiff tax on printing presses and newsprint.  It’s no coincidence that the Founding Fathers created the First Amendment, because taxing the means of producing speech was a form of government coercion they found utterly repugnant. 

And perhaps it’s no coincidence that Mr. Horwitt never mentions the First Amendment or acknowledges any constitutional concerns about his proposal.  I don’t see how his scheme could possibly pass constitutional muster under the Supreme Court’s O’Brien test, for instance.  Taxing speech isn’t the same as taxing cigarettes or gasoline.

The technologies that Mr. Horwitt would like to tax into oblivion, or at least into submission, are the latest iteration of what Ithiel de Sola Pool famously called the “Technologies of Freedom.”  Give me my newspaper and my traditional radio and TV, but also give me the rollicking, raucous world of the blogosphere, satellite and Internet radio, hundreds of cable and satellite TV channels, and the incredible wealth of information available on the Web.  These are today’s “technologies of freedom” that make our democracy what it is. 

How could anyone be fearful of “too much information”?  Information is the lifeblood of democracy, and the more the better.  The idea of restricting speech by taxing the messenger is repulsive indeed.    

Where Are the First Amendment Champions?

First Amendment advocates must acknowledge a stark reality:  Too many players in the new generation of digital media either do not understand the First Amendment, or think the First Amendment is irrelevant to their piece of the digital action, or both.    
   
This is a dangerous situation because these digital gurus are the future of America’s media.  Are they eager to uphold constitutional principles like freedom of speech?  No.  Their interests revolve around technological innovation, software and hardware applications, content availability, distribution platforms, consumer acceptance, cost per unit … business considerations wherein technology and the marketplace trump policy concerns.  What does this bode for the future of free speech and free press as we know it?
   
Right now, the equipment manufacturers appear to be the standard bearers for the First Amendment rights of the new media.  Their Washington reps at the Consumer Electronics Association aren’t afraid to invoke free-speech arguments in policy circles.  But even within this industry, and certainly among the new media generally, we have yet to see emerge an entrepreneur or company head willing to lead the First Amendment fight in the way that William Paley championed freedom of speech in an earlier era.
   
We need a new generation of First Amendment champions.  They must, of necessity, be recruited widely from the ranks of the new media.  Before they can be champions, however, they must be educated about the First Amendment.  They must realize that the First Amendment will prove utterly and crucially relevant to all manner of digital media in coming years.  And they must be willing to embrace our cherished constitutional guarantee of free speech and free press as their unqualified ally.  

Taking Care of Business

The challenges facing broadcasting as an industry have been told so often there’s no need to recite them all here. Unfortunately, broadcasters’ understandable focus on business issues is being offered up by some as an excuse for doing little to protect the First Amendment, even in matters directly related to broadcasting, like FCC v. Fox Television Stations.

There’s no doubting the industry’s need for communications policies–in areas like ownership, public interest obligations, and carriage– that are broadcaster friendly. But that is emphatically not a good reason for broadcasters to diminish the fervor with which they promote their own, and everyone’s, freedom of speech.

Just the opposite. As policymakers consider laws and regulations governing things commercial and technological, it is all the more important that broadcasters rigorously defend constitutional principles, lest they too be swept up in the general mayhem.

Going forward, broadcasters are going to be much more in the content business than the signal distribution business. And as the Internet, like cable and satellite before it, takes on more content distribution (including broadcast content) it is going to be very important for broadcasters to be free to incorporate programming that they think best.

This is exactly what is at stake in the Supreme Court’s review of the FCC’s crackdown on indecent speech.  The FCC is looking to impose content controls on broadcasters that they would not, and cannot, impose on the Internet. This, despite the fact that actual pornography, as distinguished from “fleeting expletives,” is ubiquitous on the Net.

Broadcasting faces a commercial and technological future with which it may, or may not, be able to adapt. But there is no scenario under which broadcasting survives if its content is controlled by government, or dictated by special interest groups masquerading as “media reformers.”