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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 my company.
  • 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 numbers.
    • 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 and collaboration.
      • Communications: one person to another.
      • Mass or broadcast media: one sender to many recipients.
      • 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 real world. 
  • 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 individuals.

Political change 

  • 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 political world.


    • 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 message.
      • 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 groups.

      • In Belarus, so-called “flash mobs” called together at a moment’s notice with the push of a button.  A real challenge to the government.
      • 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 in Ukraine.]
      • 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 atmosphere.
      • 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 manipulated.
    • 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 in China.
    • 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 jail.
    • 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.  [ strangled, 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 government.
      • The power and sophistication of the Chinese government was brought home last October [2007]. 
        • 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 law.
  • 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.