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Personal Democracy Forum Calls For Tech President In '08

Suggestions for the candidates include support for network neutrality, more public Wi-Fi networks, and government transparency by posting bills and votes online.
While today's presidential candidates use technology more than those before them, not one has really harnessed the potential of the Internet, a panel discussed on Friday.

Though it's early in the campaign and several candidates have begun uploading video, podcasting, and posting blogs, no one has stepped forward as the tech candidate, embracing social networks, smoothly transitioning from television to Internet video, or gone forward in a way that makes them stand out from the crowded field of contenders. And most politicians have failed to grasp technology issues, experts said during a roundtable discussion at the Personal Democracy Forum, or PDF.

"Technology is not a slice of the pie, it's the pan supporting all the issues," forum founder and publisher Andrew Rasiej said during the conference at Pace University in New York City.

About a thousand people attended a morning keynote session featuring Google chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt and several shorter sessions afterward. During other sessions and in gathering areas throughout the conference, conversation focused on candidates and the way technology is changing democracy.

PDF co-founder Micah Sifry said the current campaigns haven't pushed forward much beyond what Howard Dean did in 2004. Sifry labeled the presidential campaign technology tools "Dean 1.5."

To push them along a bit, PDF organizers have issued a challenge for candidates who could become "America's First Tech President." To that end, PDF wants candidates to endorse six ideas or offer alternatives.

They want candidates to declare the Internet a public good. That idea drew immediate and widespread applause from those listening to PDF presentations. "It's as important as clean water," Rasiej said.

The tech leader also would support public Wi-Fi networks to "keep free speech in this country safe." The candidate would go from "No child left behind" to "Every child connected." PDF's ideal Tech President would support network neutrality and government transparency (by posting their own bills and votes online).

Finally, America's Tech President would support a "National Guard of Technologies," which could mobilize after disasters to restore technology and communications and deploy systems to aid with recovery.

PDF organizers have spoken with campaign workers and urged them to beat their competitors to the punch in terms of endorsing their ideals.

Social media expert and speaker Danah Boyd said that national candidates should be shaking hands in the virtual world, as they have done in the real world for years.

"What would it mean for politicians to actually go around shaking hands and leave comments on profiles?" she asked. "The local folks get this, and do a lot more of this. Often, I'm told that politicians don't have time for this. At the same time, they do go out to public places and shake hands and make encounters, and those encounters are very important."

Boyd suggested that leaving messages on profile pages and reaching out online may be the only way to reach the under-30 crowd.

"The Internet is the only public space they really have access to," she said.

Although New York City is full of public life, young people in most of America no longer gather in town squares, hang out at shopping malls, and fill public parks, Boyd said. "It's not about holding a rally for young people because they don't come out," she said. "It's not part of their narrative."

Boyd also said that politicians need to grasp new aspects of public spaces now that people gather online. They include: persistence, searchability, and replicability.

"Persistence means that a statement you made when you were 16 is still going to be there when you're 25," she said. "Young people are learning how to deal with it."

Politicians have not, she said. Politicians also need to adapt to the ability to locate people at any given time, as well as understand that their enemies can create online material that looks like it came from the politician and is designed to make them look bad. She said they need to watch out for tactics commonly used among bullies (copying, cutting, pasting, editing, and redistributing material that looks original) to sabotage an opponent.

Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford Law School Professor, also spoke. He praised a few of the candidates -- Sens. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and former Sen. John Edwards -- for supporting efforts to license debates under Creative Commons or through the public domain.

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Mary E. Shacklett, President of Transworld Data
James M. Connolly, Contributing Editor and Writer