As President Obama prepares to deliver his State of the Union speech after a year in office, I thought it would be a good time to look back on the Administration's technology agenda. As I mention in my <a href="http://oreilly.com/catalog/9780596157036/">book</a>, Presidential Candidate Obama was really the first to leverage technology in a meaningful way during his campaign, giving us glimpses into how the political process can be engaged and enabled by a savvy social media and online strategy. So, when the Obama Administration took office, it was natural to assume that it would be bringing the White House into the Digital Age.
After all, Obama was a candidate who got it - he understood that the foundation for improving the prospects of our children and strengthening our long term economic prosperity lay in our access to and use of technology. As he said in a <a href="http://www.barackobama.com/pdf/issues/technology/Fact_Sheet_Innovation_and_Technology.pdf">campaign speech</a>:
"Let us be the generation that reshapes our economy to compete in the digital age. Let's set high standards for our schools and give them the resources they need to succeed. Let's recruit a new army of teachers, and give them better pay and more support in exchange for more accountability. Let's make college more affordable, and let's invest in scientific research, and let's lay down broadband lines through the heart of inner cities and rural towns all across America."
However, we saw glimmers of how difficult a transition into the Digital Age could be. Right off the bat there were discussions around whether a <a href="http://news.cnet.com/8301-13578_3-10148329-38.html?tag=mncol;txt">U.S. President could use a Blackberry </a>to stay in touch. This singular issue was a clear indicator of how far behind the White House actually was in its use of technology (and how vulnerable our mobile devices and digital infrastructure are).
I think the extent of the task was captured in a <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/01/21/AR2009012104249.html">Washington Post </a> article that described what it was like for the Obama Administration when they took their offices in the White House - can you imagine walking into your office and having to try to connect your landline??? So, considering the starting point, I think the Administration can feel confident they have made significant progress.
There have been some monumental firsts, such as the first U.S. Chief Technology Officer (CTO) - Aneesh Chopra - and the first U.S. Chief Information Officer (CIO) - Vivek Kundra. There was the <a href="http://www.whitehouse.gov/OpenForQuestions">First Presidential Online Chat </a> and the first foray into greater transparency with a <a href="http://it.usaspending.gov/">U.S. Federal IT dashboard</a>, which started to provide visibility into where the money in the government's budget goes. (Note, this dashboard was launched in just 6 weeks showing that even big government can get things done, particularly when using technology well!) Government agencies started using social media sites, <a href="http://www.govtech.com/gt/579338">such as Twitter</a>, to help people stay up to date on events and emergency situations.
There have been investments designed to extend broadband access to more people and places. <a href="http://www.ibls.com/internet_law_news_portal_view.aspx?s=sa&id=1816">A total of $7.2 billion pledged through the Recovery Act broadband program </a>will enable more people to connect to the resources and information of the network to improve their opportunities and participate in the global economy.
But there have also been some snafus. For instance, we have seen how hard it is to walk the line of security and transparency. Remember the <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/massive-tsa-security-breach-agency-secrets/story?id=9280503">TSA Security Breach </a>that posted all the airport screening procedures, otherwise known as a good "how to" manual for terrorists?
And there have been some downright scares that remind us of the vulnerabilities of our networks. A <a href="http://www.securityfocus.com/news/11554">denial of service attack </a>took down the U.S. government's Department of Homeland Security, Federal Trade Commission, and Treasury Department's web sites; and, of course, there is the <a href="http://www.informationweek.com/news/security/vulnerabilities/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=222400552&cid=nl_IW_daily_2010-01-26_h">recent hacker activity on Google </a>and other prominent companies. These incidents serve as a reminder that the Administration needs to balance preserving individual rights in the digital world, with increasing the overall security of the connections. We have seen U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speak out against online censorship and can assume the just appointed Cybersecurity Coordinator Howard Schmidt will be leading the Adminstration's stand on cybersecurity.
It's important to remember that some of the activities the Administration has tackled this year are purely housekeeping, laying the fundamental groundwork that will help the government move forward more effectively in the future. For instance, there are the mundane, but very important projects of ensuring <a href="http://www.informationweek.com/news/government/info-management/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=222301693&cid=nl_IW_daily_html">White House e-mails </a>are appropriately catalogued, archived and backed-up. (The goal is to also ensure there is an auditable record of all e-mail activity and measures in place to ensure only authorized individuals can access the database and alerts are raised when someone tries to delete anything.) Or <a href="http://www.informationweek.com/news/government/enterprise-architecture/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=217400505">developing a plan </a>that will help standardize and provide a common information technology infrastructure for government that can reduce costs and ensure greater consistency, visibility and security long term.
But it has been encouraging to see the government innovate and try new things, such as moving into the <a href="http://fcw.com/Articles/2009/12/10/Open-government-cloud-computing.aspx">cloud</a>. If the <a href="http://www.informationweek.com/news/government/cloud-saas/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=222400161&cid=nl_IW_daily_html">lumberingCensus process </a>can benefit from the efficiencies of the Cloud, chances are there are many other applications and benefits.
The use of all these technologies can foster opportunities, innovation, and long-term economic viability; it can pave the way for more effective service delivery and greater transparency to increase the dialogue and strengthen the relationships citizens have with their government. I think the Administration, while it has a long way to go, is definitely on the right track when it comes to technology.
"A man who has committed a mistake and doesn't correct it, is committing another mistake." Confucius, Chinese teacher, philosopher and political theorist, 551-479 BC
Time and time again, China has tested the digital world, trying to stifle its free information flow and control the resources that are open to its people. There are a long list of methods China has employed to clamp down on access. They have used a variety of technological tricks, some of which we know about and many of which we never will, and some good old-fashioned coercion measures (from fines to imprisonment) designed to pressure content owners to keep content in line with what they deem acceptable. For example, in 2008, the year the summer Olympics took place in China, it was discovered that China had been monitoring Skype communications and a handful of bloggers whose commentary was unfavorable to China during the Olympics were detained. (Probably not so coincidentally, they were released and their blog postings removed only a little while later.)
China employs thousands of government workers in these efforts, and, to date, have been fairly successful in achieving the results they desire. It seems when faced with the potential entices of the Chinese market, businesses have found themselves in some precarious positions and made some, in my opinion, dubious calls, in efforts to comply with Chinese requirements.
For instance, when Google opened up shop in China, they agreed to censor some of their search results. Yahoo was questioned by Congress, in 2007, for turning over e-mails that led to the imprisonment of Chinese dissidents. In 2008, <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/05/19/AR2008051902661.html">Cisco Systems was also questioned by Congress </a> after it was suggested, due to a Cisco sales presentation that surfaced, that they were potentially helping the Chinese government modify their networking equipment to block and censor Internet traffic (it should be noted it was an accusation they Cisco vehemently denied). YouTube has found its service shut down several times; presumably to avoid any glimpses of content that China deemed unacceptable. (Probably not surprising, the last shut down lasted through the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, along with the blocking of Twitter.)
In 2009, the Chinese government issued a directive that would have required the installation of filtering software, nicknamed <a href="http://opennet.net/chinas-green-dam-the-implications-government-control-encroaching-home-pc">"Green Dam," </a>on every personal computer (PC) sold in the Chinese market. Almost comically, they proposed this requirement under the auspices of protecting children from harmful Internet content. It was sharply criticized by governments around the world on a variety of fronts, from free speech impingement to potential security compromises to free-trade violations. This is due to the reality that if loaded onto every PC, it would give the Chinese government unprecedented control over an individual's personal computing use. While <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/01/technology/01china.html?_r=3&partner=rss&emc=rss">China backed-off of its deadline</a> (July 1, 2009) for implementation, in the face of pressure from Chinese computer users, computer manufacturers, and governments, it's evident they have not been rethinking their overall objectives - to control their citizen's online access.
But it seems the proverbial straw that broke the camels back occurred last week for Google. Taken from the <a href="http://googlepublicpolicy.blogspot.com/2010/01/new-approach-to-china.html">blog </a>of Google SVP, Corporate Development and Chief Legal Officer, David Drummond</a>, they had identified a "highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google." After further investigation they found it was part of a wider attack designed to access the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. (An good disection of the attacks can be found <a href="http://cnettv.cnet.com/china-attack-google-explained/9742-1_53-50082324.html">here</a>)They have since "discovered that the accounts of dozens of US-, China- and Europe-based Gmail users who are advocates of human rights in China appear to have been routinely accessed by third parties," which goes to the heart of a much bigger global debate about freedom of speech."
As of right now, there is no international standard, nor universal agreement on what is acceptable or not in terms of free speech in the digital world; we are all treading in un-chartered waters. There's the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was drafted in 1948 and provides a basic framework, but little practical guidance in this Digital Information Age. And declarations, such as <a href="http://www.globalnetworkinitiative.org/">The Global Network Initiative (GNI), </a>while noble in intent, have provided very few specifics and virtually no repurcussions for abuses.
But the threat to freedom of speech in the digital world is very real. As I have mentioned in <a href="http://broadcast.oreilly.com/2009/08/censorship-is-a-potential-thre.html">previous blogs</a>, questionable restrictions on the network can lead to potential fettering of its possibilities and major encroachments on individual personal freedoms. It's a very slippery slope.
So, I want to applaud Google for making a stand and drawing a line. They announced, "We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China."
While we still have to see what will come of this proclamation, but the fact they have said they are willing to walk away represents a clear departure from trying to conduct business as usual. The Obama administration has since issued a statement of support for Google and reiterated Internet freedom as a priority. So, while we may not see a huge sea change right away, this represents a step in the right direction and has reignited a much needed debate around personal freedoms. It sends a message that it is not okay to simply work within the confines of China's increasingly restrictive rules and hopefully it will improve the willingness of China and other governments to work more with foreign companies and governments on these issues.
Everyone should be able to participate and be heard; the right of free speech is an ideal we need to fight for in the digital world, and it starts with everyone having the right to freely connect to the unfettered information of the network. This latest attack should serve as a wake up call for companies, policy makers and governments around the world to be more bold and work to protect and improve the rights and opportunities of citizens everywhere.
The loss of life and destruction in Haiti is just devastating. I, who love words, find myself speechless when I see the pictures of people wading through the rubble of their lives. It's hard to make sense of any of it. But, I have seen one bright spot - I have found hope in the outpouring of support originating from around the world. People of all races, religions and backgrounds are coming together to help.
And the network, it turns out, is facilitating a lot of it. It has helped quickly spread information, solicit help and provided a lifeline between those in and outside of Haiti. For starters, it's enabling people to donate what they can to organizations that are directly impacting the relief and support activities on the ground in Haiti. The White House suggests donating to the <a href="http://www.redcross.org/?adid=011310_midweeknewsletter_messagetheredcross">Red Cross</a>, which you can do online. You can also easily donate $10 by sending the text message "Haiti" to 90999 and the donation will be automatically added to your cell phone bill. (As of yesterday, more than $1 million had been raised this way by texters using all different wireless companies.)
The network has also been a key witness and participant in the event itself - within minutes, and I mean literally minutes, photos and news of the devastation were posted online; maps of the area and scientific explanations of the fault-lines involved were linked to real-time views from witnesses and first-hand accounts of the quake. Simultaneously, calls for aid went out and philanthropic organizations began mobilizing the response. Again, within minutes, organizations were sending out information to first responders and aid workers to coordinate their efforts.
Facebook and Twitter were serving as main sources of information. They were providing critical links to family and friends around the world, who were/are frantically trying to get information on the safety and well-being of those they know in the area. Note, users primarily connected via satellite because phone and landline connections were down or unpredictable. (The satellite Internet connectivity is similar to what was availalble during Katrina, until hastily erected cell towers were able to provide connectivity to many on the ground.) A <a href="http://www.usatoday.com/tech/webguide/internetlife/2010-01-13-haitisocial_N.htm">USA Today article </a>reported that "there have been more than 1,500 Facebook status updates per minute containing the word "Haiti" since the quake, according to Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes." Blogs are being used as online <a href="livesayhaiti.blogspot.com">bulletin boards </a>providing information and acting as a resource on those who are missing.
A quick visit to the Red Cross site (and those of other similar organizations) shows you how they are mobilizing volunteers, centralizing information about how and where to give blood, and helping connect people to pertinent information regarding a specific event or need, etc. Of course, this is nothing new. Relief and aid organizations have been using online sites to <a href="http://www.globalgiving.com">link people </a>to humanitarian needs for years, but the use of social media to mobilize and activate groups is certainly becoming more and more sophisticated and effective.
If you think back just ten years ago, the flow of information and the ability to solicit and receive timely support was much different. And this is the promise and hope of the network - if it can help people band together and get involved, even in small ways, there's the opportunity to ultimately make a big difference or solve big problems. Of course, in Haiti, the personal devastation and loss of life will always be irreparable, but as the other needs in Haiti evolve I am hopefully that we have the connections we need to make a difference and help them rebuild their lives. My thoughts are with them.
Sarah Sorensen is the author of The Sustainable Network: The Accidental Answer for a Troubled Planet. The Sustainable Network demonstrates how we can tackle challenges, ranging from energy conservation to economic and social innovation, using the global network -- of which the public Internet is just one piece. This book demystifies the power of the network, and issues a strong call to action.
I hope everyone had a fantastic holiday. I had a great time, catching up with family and friends and eating way too much. But what I loved most was hanging out with my two girls. They are a constant reminder of the magic and wonder of the season and the value of a good box.
I bet any parent can acknowledge that the wrapping paper and boxes the toys come in are often more exciting and inspire more imagination than the toys themselves. It never fails - the most fun they have Christmas morning is traveling to far off destinations in the box. Hiding in or underneath the box tends to incite more giggles than any doll or toy airplane under the tree! Yet, with all the benefits offered by the box, it tends to be the first thing to go (in the recycling bin, of course).
So that got me thinking, what if we all made a concerted effort to extend the life of that box? There are some that are already on top of it - check out <a href="http://www.aboxlife.com/">"A Box Life" </a>, which is a program launched by Columbia Sportswear. It encourages the reuse of their packaging by helping customers track thier boxes when they use them to send items to another destination. Inspiring folks to see whose box can travel to the most or the farthest location. Pretty cool, huh? And if more companies/consumers took part, it could make a big difference.
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Which got me thinking about all the other things we consume. There are the online services, such as Craigslist and Yahoo!, who have been helping users find other people that want and can use their old stuff for years; eBay has mastered the art of making old stuff as valuable, maybe even more so than new. And you may have heard of <a href="www.terracycle.net">Terracycle</a> and <a href="http://www.afrigadget.com/">Afrigadget </a>, which demonstrate how everything, and I mean everything, with a little ingenuity, can be reused in some form or fashion.
So, my question for us all in 2010 is "Can we be doing more? What kind of imagination can we apply to ensuring that boxes (and resources in general) are not overlooked for their usefulness? What extended life can we give to those things we create and what can we conserve in their creation?"
Technology, while providing a lot of efficiency advantages, is a big offender in terms of lifecycle impacts, <a href="http://blogs.zdnet.com/green/?p=9294&tag=content;col1">which I discuss at greater length in my book</a>. While there are many companies that have done a lot to reduce the environmental impact of their products, such as <a href="http://www.apple.com/macbook/environment.html">Apple</a>, there is still more to be done. How can we all take advantage of the advances of the digital age without having to upgrade every year?
We are going to need to retool not only the design of solutions, but also the business models of companies that rely on short deployment cycles. It also requires a readjustment on our part - as consumers - to look at how to extend the life of the things we purchase. Ultimately, we all need to do our part to reduce the resource consumption that occurs in the development, manufacturing, distribution, use and disposal of each product we purchase. (With the world's population estimated to grow to 9 billion by mid-century, the strain is only going to get worse on all of our resources.)
We, excuse the pun, need to think more outside of the box to identify new, ingenious ways to use the things we have. Businesses need to drive efficiencies, which often translate into cost savings and potential competitive advantage, to create processes and solutions that extend the life and reduce the impact of those things they produce. Children don't see a box, they see possibilities. We need to do the same thing.
You will excuse me now - I have to go pull my girls around the floor in their "fancy" box!