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Last Updated: 07/10/2008
Bob Boorstin on the impact of the Internet on political life
notes by Hamid Arsalan
Bob Boorstin, Director, Corporate and Policy Communications at Google Talks about the impact of the Internet on public opinion and political power in Venice, Italy.
- Our topic today is neither small nor
subject to certainties.
- But one thing is clear. When you
talk about the Internet nobody can really tell you what’s coming next –
except a lot more change. Things are moving so fast that whatever we think
to be true today may well be overtaken by events or inventions of
tomorrow. This is the fundamental truth both for the sector and for
- That said, today I want to address this
topic – and offer a few thoughts on the positive and negative impact that
Internet is having on political life.
Context – Three Trends
- First, the growth of the Internet on
an unimaginable scale. Throw out a few
- Internet today has 1.4 billion users
globally, a number that’s growing between 200 and 250 million every year
- China just
surpassed the United States in the number of Internet users in the first
quarter of this year – and only 16 percent of Chinese are online
- Those people – users of the Internet –
are not shy. Now about 113 million blogs.
- Perhaps more important, the world is now
home to about 3 billion mobile devices…figure another billion in the next
three or four years.
- They’re far cheaper than PC’s and their
capacity to handle data is increasing daily.
- World Bank says that more than 2/3s of
world’s population lives within range of mobile phone network.
- Finally, people are now uploading ten
hours of video to YouTube every minute.
- The results of this can be truly scary.
- If you’ve spent any time randomly
watching videos on YouTube, you too may be asking, “Is this the best
humankind has to offer?”
- Second trend – the Internet has
created the potential for a fundamental shift in power.
- New ways of communication, interaction
- Communications: one person to another.
- Mass or broadcast media: one sender to
- Now networks: many senders to many
recipients and back again. Not one way.
- Everyone has the potential not only to
be a consumer of information but a creator. We are witnessing what
author and Internet guru Clay Shirky has called “the largest increase in
expressive capability in the history of the human race.”
- Power is multiplied by the rise of
social tools with great names like Facebook, Bebo and Twitter.
- The question is whether this potential
will result in change outside the online world, in what we used to call the
- Third trend – one of the biggest
impacts of the growth of the Internet is a loss of control among traditional institutions of power.
- This applies whether those institutions
are governments, the media or – perhaps most tragic of all – parents.
- In that sense, the Internet has gone
beyond being a tool or a tactic and become a virtual institution – one
that illuminates new ways of doing things and expands the power of
- This leads to the question: what does
this mean for public opinion, politics, and government?
- Begin by saying the vast, vast majority
of what happens and appears on the Internet has absolutely nothing to
do with politics.
- Pornography, music and cute animals take
up a lot more space.
- That said, let me talk briefly about the
positive and negative impact the Internet seems to be having in the
- First, the Internet has helped create
new political voices and networks.
- Nowhere more clear than in the United States with the Obama campaign – fundraising, volunteers, and dissemination of
- No exaggeration to say that he has run
the first 21st Century political campaign for President.
- As Roger [Cohen] pointed out in a
recent column, the bottom line is that Obama got it and Clinton did not.
- It is a particularly interesting moment
for those of us who have been working in politics for a long time.
Quite a contrast to the 1992 Clinton/Gore campaign where in the “war
room” we too had technology: it was called the fax machine.
- Second, the Internet has empowered new
- In Belarus, so-called “flash mobs” called together at a
moment’s notice with the push of a button. A real challenge to the
- Last month formation by a 27-year-old Egyptian blogger
of a Facebook group to protest the rising price of food, a group that
grew to 64,000 people.
- Protests can be created that government can neither stop
in advance nor suppress without the public taking notice.
- Third, the Internet offers new ways to
break the monopoly on information.
- [Use of blogs in the Orange Revolution
- A lot faster and easier now to catch
both politicians and governments when they make mistakes or try to cover
things up – and hold them accountable.
- Fourth, the Internet has begun to tear
down traditional political and geographic borders.
- [How many use Google Earth?
Looked for your house?]
- In Bahrain in 2006, bloggers used
Google Earth during the parliamentary elections to highlight contrast
between the palaces of the Sunni aristocracy and the slums where the
vast majority of Shiia live.
- Bahraini Ministry of Information banned
Google Earth but reversed it three days later under pressure – and it
drew more publicity to the issue.
- Most recently used in Zimbabwe to demonstrate the “irregularities” in the first round of the elections.
- First, cacophony of new political voices
is not necessarily going to create a more constructive political
- More does not mean better.
- Second, information is not always true
or of high quality.
- Internet means that anyone is free to
publish the truth as they see it.
- Blogs, for example, have become one of
the main drivers for what the traditional media covers. The
question then becomes can you trust the bloggers? (Google News
does not include blogs.)
- Public opinion can be more easily
- Third, the Internet seems to highlight
the voices of the extremes.
- New, much stronger ability to
instantaneously reach millions of people.
- This is true whether one is talking
about extreme right- or left-wingers in the U.S. or ultra-nationalists
- Fourth, the Internet tends to breed a
false sense of security, even in countries where people ought well to
understand the trouble they could get into and ought to be used to
surveillance. Just ask the bloggers and dissidents who have gone to
- Fifth, and finally, the governments that
most fear losing control of the Internet are every bit as good – if not
better – at using the technology as those who support freedom and the
right to dissent.
- Google has encountered difficulties
since we first entered the market with our censored Chinese search
engine – itself a difficult decision and one that raised no small amount
of controversy. [Google.com strangled, Google.cn launched under
the rules of the Chinese government.]
- Added to that has been intense
competition with the Chinese-owned search engine Baidu. Baidu’s
market share is more than 60 percent and it is in bed with the
- The power and sophistication of the Chinese
government was brought home last October .
- Three events. Annual meeting in Beijing of the Chinese Communist Party leadership. Opening of a YouTube channel in Taiwan. U.S. Congress awards the Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama.
- For 18 hours, the three primary
American (or partially American) search engines were redirected to
Baidu. That is, you typed in the Chinese characters for Google in
your browser and you were sent automatically to Baidu.
- A delicate balance: to maximize free expression
and political participation while respecting cultural traditions and local
- The best that we can hope for is to get
the largest amount of high-quality information to the most people, when
the want it and where they want it.
- Where people take it from there is –
whether they choose to use this information in the service of progress or
not – is something that none of us can predict with certainty.
- If you find the answer to that question,
please send me an e-mail.
Bob Boorstin is Director of Corporate and Policy Communications at Google.