Obama's Plan for Open-Source Democracy

Speaking to a room full of Google employees gathered at the organization's Mountain View, Calif. headquarters last week, Barack Obama delivered a series of promises sure to make their tech-savvy hearts go pitter-patter. As president, he said, he would lead the charge to assure "net neutrality," and ensure that the web doesn't become another conduit for corporate America.

"I will take a backseat to no one in my commitment to network neutrality," Obama told the Google staffers. "The Internet is perhaps the most open network in history. We have to keep it that way."

In addition to committing to neutrality on the web, the candidate also laid out his pledges to support policies that encourage greater diversity in media ownership, expand access to broadband, and use technological innovation to address concerns about the economy, health care, climate change, energy, and immigration. But in many ways, his plan is less about tech than it is about technology's political implications, and how the candidate envisions using technology as a vehicle for his greater promises of a new political era in Washington. It aims to use technology as a means of creating a government where these issues are discussed -- and addressed -- with the same kind of open-source, efficient, and user-centric principles that have powered Google. "He's fresh, he's new," one of the site's advertising reps effused to a Reuters reporter. "There's something about him that's Google-like."

Some of the other Democratic candidates might want to borrow heavily from these principles if they're looking to distance themselves from the past seven years of secrecy, and shortsightedness. The Obama plan calls for programs that use those technologies to make more government documents available to the public via government websites and databases. With access to information -- on everything from environmental data to records of lobbyist contacts with politicians -- citizens and interest groups will be able to use that information to push for change and better government. It also outlines plans to broadcast meetings in government agencies live online, and create tools that allow citizens to track federal grants, contracts, lobbyist information, and earmarks. On the legislative end, it would create a five-day public comment period on the White House site before the president signs legislation into law, giving citizens the capacity to more directly interact with the executive. The plan calls for the creation of a "chief technology officer" post that would oversee the introduction of new technology in government agencies, coordinate efforts between offices, and enforce the policies of disclosure the plan outlines.

"We need to recognize that the government is never going to have the capability of doing with this data as much as the rest of the net and the rest of the interested public," said Lawrence Lessig, a law professor at Stanford and the founder of the school's Center for Internet and Society who was involved in crafting the Obama plan. "The model of making the data available freely and feeding it into a whole host of competing entities interested in trying to figure out how to make it work better is an important step for the senator to take in really making it possible for his objectives around corruption and making government work to be achieved."

These policies would stand in stark contrast to the past seven years of secrecy and closure in the Bush administration. With a White House committed to wiggling out of disclosure rules and nearly every government agency marred by some level of scandal, a commitment to shedding some sunshine on the basic functions of government would be a welcome departure. Even the information that the public is guaranteed by law has been kept under wraps: two of every five Freedom of Information Act requests were never even processed in 2006, the number of denials increased by 10 percent that year alone. Since 1998, the number of exemptions cited as justification for withholding information increased 83 percent.

For Lessig and other leading minds in tech, the plan signifies a greater promise of transparency in the future of politics. "He put this question of how should government work on the agenda, and in the public debate, and put forward a plan about how we can get away from a lot of what we're seeing today, which is closed door practices, lack of public access to the data that belongs to us, decisions that are based on ideology, junk science and bad information," said Beth Noveck, a professor at New York Law School who was also involved in creating the plan.

The process and the brains behind Obama's tech plan offer some insight into why so many people concerned about openness and access in government are on board with it. Obama's domestic policy teams -- 21 of them in all, involving a total of more than 1,000 participants, according to the campaign staff -- have drawn in experts in their respective fields from all over the country. The technology team alone includes more than 100 experts from academia, law, science, and business, with notables like Lessig and Noveck among the ranks. The team has been headed by Julius Genachowski, a technology executive and investor, a Harvard Law classmate of Obama's and the former chief counsel to Reed Hundt, the Federal Communications Commission chairman during Bill Clinton's first term.

Obama's tech team doesn't just espouse open-source, shared knowledge principles -- they actually put them into practice when creating the plan. The experts used Web sites and wikis to trade insights about what a strong, forward-thinking plan might look like, and also to discuss, mark-up, and add ideas to draft versions of the plan. As Noveck points out, the plan didn't come from the Beltway alone, which is how they envision government policy being created and shaped in the future, with leading minds networked via these technological innovations.

"We can't rely on government itself to have all the expertise, all the answers, and all the solutions," said Noveck. "And that means providing the opportunity not only for us to make use of the data, but actually to get involved in how we make decisions."

The campaign has been putting these ideas to work throughout, with features like "MyBarackObama.com," where 280,000 supporters have created personal pages, and an online program for citizens to submit policy ideas, which has drawn in more than 15,000 suggestions. While this sort of high-tech gimmick might seem more targeted at the MySpace generation than the graying demographics more inclined to head to the polls, it's a useful means for putting some of the candidate's promises into practice on the campaign trail.

Obama isn't the only candidate to lay out a technology policy. In October, Hillary Clinton released her innovation plan, which calls for national broadband internet, permanent research tax credits, and federal investments in high-tech fields. But although Clinton and Obama are both co-sponsors of a bill introduced last January that would guarantee net neutrality, her plan didn't include it as a priority, nor did it include any of these bigger ideas about bringing government into the 21st century.

Before that, Edwards was actually the first to come out with a technology plan, centering his around the ideas of "open media" and also affirming his support for net neutrality, low-power radio, and fighting media concentration. But even his technologically forward-thinking plan doesn't have the same ideological commitments as Obama's. On the Republican side, Giuliani's statements on technology have, not surprisingly, focused on how it can be used to fight terror and promote business. Romney's discussion of the subject has focused mainly on how to exert American dominance in the industy.

For the experts involved in crafting the Obama plan, having a candidate who is willing to infuse these ideas into a presidential campaign is positive advancement, perhaps revelatory of the future of government and technology.

"Even if he doesn't win as president," said Noveck, "having a public debate, particularly during a presidential election about what our government should look like, what democracy should look like, is really to my mind one of the central questions we should be asking when we elect a president: What does our democracy look like in a new technological era?"

With the release of his technology plan, Obama is saying definitively that democracy should look different in the 21st century. New technology is just one vehicle for making that happen. Though it remains to be seen whether voters -- beyond the tech-heads at the Googleplex -- make that connection.