The United States of Google

I’ve been working on an essay for the upcoming Personal Democracy Forum — and also for my book, WWGD? — about the future of government online, and so I want to throw some of the ideas I’ve been playing with out to you for reaction, improvement, and argument, and I want to ask you about your notions of government in the internet age. I’ll start:

* Abolish the Freedom of Information Act. Turn it inside-out. Why should we be asking for information about and from our government? The government should have to ask to keep things from us. Government information — every act of government on our behalf — should be free by default. We must insist on an aggressive ethic of openness. The exceptions should be rare: the personal business of citizens, national security, ongoing criminal investigations and court cases (while they are ongoing), and little else.

In the past, the physical means of information simply did not allow for this; file cabinets filled with papers could not be open to every inspector all the time. But digital files can be. When all business is transacted digitally, it can be captured, stored, and opened to search and analysis. We must insist on it — and not just from the executive branch (as is the case with the current FOIA) but from all branches, and not just from the federal government but from all levels of government. Sunshine everywhere.

The entirety of government must be searchable.

Barack Obama has a start on this. Speaking at Google, he said:

I’ll put government data online in universally accessible formats. I’ll let citizens track federal grants, contracts, earmarks, and lobbyist contacts. I’ll let you participate in government forums, ask questions in real time, offer suggestions that will be reviewed before decisions are made, and let you comment on legislation before it is signed. And to ensure that every government agency is meeting 21st century standards, I’ll appoint the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer.

* Government officials and agencies should blog. This ethic of openness should go beyond official documents and files. Openness should be part of the work habit of government officials and conversation with constituents should be an ethic of government. The open blog is merely a tool and a symbol for this — and a more efficient tool, I’ll add, than individual letters and phone calls. Hillary Clinton has said she wants agencies to blog.

I want to have a much more transparent government, and I think we now have the tools to make that happen. I said the other night at an event in New Hampshire, I want to have as much information about the way our government operates on the Internet so the people who pay for it, the taxpayers of America, can see that. I want to be sure that we actually have like agency blogs. I want people in all the government agencies to be communicating with people because for me, we’re now in an era — which didn’t exist before — where you can have instant access to information, and I want to see my government be more transparent. I want to make sure that we limit, if we can’t eliminate all the no-bid contracts, the cronyism, I want to cut 500,000 government contractors.

More from Clinton here:

I want to put everything on the Internet. I want you to see the budget of every agency. I want you to track everything that goes on in your government — you pay for it, you should know about it. . . . We should even have a government blogging team where people in the agencies are constantly telling all of you, the taxpayers, the citizens of America, everything that’s going on so that you have up-to-the-minute information about what your government is doing, so that you too can be informed, and hold the government accountable.

* Webcast government. The government should put C-SPAN out of business by videoing itself. Obama has said he wants to webcast agency meetings. I say the same should be the case for Congressional meetings and, yes, court sessions, including Supreme Court hearings. I’ve suggested that radio stations and newspapers should get citizens to record and podcast all their local government meetings.

All of government’s deliberations should be watchable. That doesn’t mean they’ll be watched, of course; this is sure to be the lowest rated video in the history of the camera. But that doesn’t matter. All it takes is for one Josh Marshall to get one of his readers to watch one hearing to catch that moment that’s newsworthy. And all the while, the government officials on the other side of the camera will know they are being watched.

Now one could argue that this will turn government into show biz, that politicians will preen for the camera as they have in big hearings and as judges have in televised trials. But the more everything is videoed, the less it becomes special. It becomes the eye of the people, always there: Big Brother, reversed.

* Start GovernmentStorm. If Dell and now Starbucks can do it, government should. These storms, powered by, enable customers to make suggestions and then to vote and comment on others’ suggestions. In general, good ideas attract votes and conversations and bad ideas die on the vine. One sees trends emerge in the discussion: Starbucks should see that its greatest problem with customers now is not the smell of its sandwiches but the length of its lines. One also sees an incredible generosity from customers; they will spend their time telling companies what they want to buy and how to improve — and only a foolish company would not listen. We’ll surely do the same for our government. Indeed, the more we feel an ownership of our government — the more we can have a role, the more responsive it is to our wishes, needs, and ideas — the better, right?

I think there is another important aspect to this idea: turning the conversation about government to the positive. Today, the default in our discussion of government is negative: that they are doing bad things badly and that we are the watchdogs who’ll catch them in the act. Now that is true in too many cases. And frustration with government is only amplified when we think we are shouting at a brick wall; that is what newspaper columnists — long shut off from the man on the street for whom they thought they were writing and now suddenly able to hear them — are beginning to learn.

But it is destructive to concentrate only on the negative; we have to shift to the constructive. We need to engage in a positive conversation about positive action. That, one hopes, is what Obama’s theme of hope is really about.

So if I were Mark Benioff at Salesforce, I’d offer his storms to any government agency at any level (for free, because it would be a generous gift back and it would also distribute the functionality as a standard of such conversation). And then the wise politician will open up, invite ideas, and hold conversations with constituents there (this won’t work if the politicians don’t engage in that conversation and don’t take action based on ideas there; then it’s just another brick wall). So if I were my governor, Jon Corzine, facing the need to make huge cuts in government — and only more cuts as the economy worsens — I’d ask citizens for theirs ideas. It wouldn’t be a magic bullet but maybe some ideas and themes (though not consensus) would emerge.

I am not in favor of turning to government-by-poll. There’s tyranny in that. As much of a populist as I am, I do believe in the representative, republican (small ‘r’) structure of our government with its filters, balances, and deliberative process. But I do think that given a chance to take help, citizens will. And technology can help them do that.

Let’s move from the gift economy to a gift government.

* Personal political pages. I believe the ethic of openness will spread across society. The press demands that government be transparent, then so must the press be — and this applies to individual journalists. Likewise, as citizens demand transparency, so will they become more transparent. Ethics work both in two directions.

We are already seeing more personal transparency in society. We see it in Facebook and blogs and other social media, where people — particularly young people — realize that they have to open up something of themselves to find others who share their interests and where identity is made up more and more of what we create and what we make public. Just like Flickr, we are starting to default to publicness. Privacy is often put forth as the issue online but, as Facebook has learned a few times now, the real issue is not privacy but control of our information.

So I propose personal political pages where we can, if we choose, reveal our stands, opinions, alliances, and allegiances and where we can — here I call on Doc Searls’ Vendor Relationship Management project — manage our relationship with government, campaigns, and movements. Call it PRM, political relationship management.

Here’s how I see it working: I put online my personal statement: I am a centrist Democrat; I voted for Hillary Clinton and hope to get the chance to do so again; I want to actively support such movements as protecting the First Amendment against FCC censorship and insuring an open broadband policy in the country. On my page, I can explain and discuss any issues I choose. I already disclose many of those views here. But on my personal political page page, I also get to manage my relationship with politicians: I say which candidates and organizations and movements may approach me to ask for donations or to volunteer. I can also invite opponents of my views to try to convince me: send me a link to your best shot. I can also change my views and votes on the page.

Let’s imagine that there are millions and millions of our pages. They can be searched and analyzed to get a constant snapshot of the views of the people: Google as the polling place that never closes. This puts us in control of public opinion and takes it out of the hands of pollsters and to some extent pundits and even out of the hands of elections. It makes elections a constant process. Again, I don’t want to run government this way but I do want more input and this is just that.

The page also becomes a standard for disclosure. Politicians need to say where they stand. And I believe that journalists should, too.

It also becomes a platform for organizing citizens around shared needs and beliefs. That is what the internet is really all about — not content, not media, but connections among people. As Mark Zuckerberg said at Davos, as soon as Facebook was translated into Spanish, it was being used to organize against FARC in Colombia. See also the Tibetan Freedom Movement app. And note well that this creates an international polity, a new layer of political action from people that is more efficient than any U.N. or E.U. The internet dooms middlemen, and that includes bureaucrats.

I’m smelling a Personal Political Page Facebook app.

* The dawn of the human politician. Speaking of Facebook… It will not be long before we see a candidate for office having to admit some youthful foible because it was memorialized on Facebook. We had the president who lusted in his heart, the president who toked (but didn’t inhale), the president who came (same one), and we now have the presidential candidate who inhaled and snorted, and in New York, we have the governors who shtup. Apart from one of those governors, I have no problem with those sins because have nothing to do with the job of running the business of government. I argue that it is a mistake to think that politicians, of all people, are moral leaders or paragons of virtue; they are the last people we should put on pedestals (and this is one of the reasons I am wary of the Obama cult). So the transparency and openness that is coming to our lives on the internet means that we operate under mutually assured humiliation. I say that’s a good thing.

* People replace television. Joe Trippi, as much as anyone, hopes and believes that the power of the internet to help campaigns raise incredible amounts of money from incredible numbers of citizens — and to organize those citizens into movements, which is what the Obama campaign has done — is what will free our political system from big money. The revolution, he promises, will not be televised. Well, that’s not happening yet, witness the record spending this year and John McCain’s desperate efforts to run away from the act under his name. Television still matters, so big money still matters.

But let’s imagine that we’re in the future when television’s reach has shrunken to the point that it doesn’t matter anymore, that it’s no longer an efficient means of getting out a message to us, the masses. I think many in campaigns and media think — hope — that money will just shift online. But that won’t happen. Spending a lot of money to get to a lot of people just doesn’t work as well online as it does in broadcast.

No, the future of campaigning — just as the future of marketing — is people. It is advocates. If you want to win an election, you have to have the people who will go tell their friends who will tell their friends. The Obama campaign is, I believe, a preview of that political future.

* Rule by engineers. It will not be long, I believe, before we will have an engineer in the White House. President Schmidt. President Page. President Zuckerberg. President Gates, even. Or best yet, President Mayer. After all, engineers are now running more and more of industry — since the internet is our best industry — and thanks to their success, they are making their influence felt in charity. Government is surely next.

At Davos, I was struck by the different approach to solving problems I saw from Google’s founders. After hearing Al Gore trying to fix the environment through taxes and regulation, I heard the Google guys try to do the same through invention and investment in reducing the cost of power. Engineers don’t waste their time with cool ideas. They seek a problem and solve it. And they are spoiled that in their world of technology, unlike the messier world of people, most problems do have solutions. Still, I look forward to rule by engineers. I think it will be more rational, more logical, less flashy (unless it’s President Jobs we get). And because these are people of few words, we’ll see more results than rhetoric. We can only hope.

So how do you think government can, should, or will change in the internet age?