12 February, 2006

Internet Firms in an Awkward Spot as Congress Looks Into China's Influence on Web Freedom

It will be an interesting week for representatives of Google and other Internet firms, who will testify on Capitol Hill about their recent arrangements with the Chinese government.

Google announced last month that it agreed to censor search results from its Chinese site to satisfy the Chinese government's censorship restrictions.

Cisco Systems, Microsoft and Yahoo have similar agreements with the Chinese government.

It's a huge market and it is easy to appreciate the pressure on the Internet companies to compete there.

But it puts them in a tough spot since they continue to fight for purity of the Internet here in the States. Google has resisted the Justice Department's request for information on user searches, ostensibly as a way to fight child pornography. The big search engines are also resisting efforts by telephone and cable companies who are trying to assert more control over Internet lines.

Not that I'm trying to bite the server that hosts me (Google hosts all blogspot blogs, including this one) but it will be interesting to watch Google try to explain its China deal while advocating Internet freedom here.

The Internet can help to level the political playing field as I pointed out in article I wrote for another purpose a few weeks back.

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THE INTERNET:CHANGING THE WAY POLITICS IS PLAYED

By Ron Vallo

Open your e-mail every morning and there, mixed in with the come-ons for mail-order prescription drugs and products that promise "male enhancement," are some familiar names. But those names - Tom Matzzie of MoveOn.org or Jim Dean from Democracy for America, for example - are only familiar to you because you see them every day.

The Internet, which is widely believed to have come of age as a political tool during the 2004 elections, is being used by political activist groups, political parties and would-be candidates to keep their names and ideas front-and-center during the political off-season. Those efforts appear to be well aimed.

In its annual survey of Internet use the University of Southern California's Annenberg School Center for the Digital Future found that the web has blossomed as a key political tool - for both the political consumer and politicians.

According to the survey, 62% of those polled believe the Internet is important to political campaigns while 40% of those who identified themselves as Internet users feel the Web can give people more political power. Only 27% felt that way in the center's previous survey in 2004.

"With the expansion of information online about issues and candidates during the 2004 elections and an increase in voters accessing this information, this year (we) found significant growth in the number of people who feel politically empowered by going online, wrote Jeffrey I. Cole, director of the Annenberg School Center. "The Internet will forever change the course and nature of American politics, probably in ways today's political leaders may not be comfortable with because there are so many information sources and opportunities for dialogue," Cole said in an interview posted on the school's Web site.

The experience of one journalist and self-described "political junkie" seems to confirm those findings. James Pindell was hired to run the political news Web site, politicsNH.com , three years ago. Pindell, managing editor of the New Hampshire-based site, said when he covered his first political event in 2002 people though he was "like a freak from cable access." But the site has quickly grown in stature and influence. Pindell said 50,000 different users clicked onto the site on a typical day during the 2004 presidential campaign. Usage dropped dramatically on 2005, to about 5,000 visitors a day, but Pindell said he expects the 2006 statewide races in New Hampshire will bring back the less hard-core reader.

Pindell believes the Internet can have the most effect on political primaries, races often run by candidates long on ideas but short on money. "You no longer have the same newspaper and the same TV station that has always covered the races. If more people tell the story it opens up the process."

He said one-issue candidates are often those who gain the most from the Internet, by tapping the efforts of bloggers.

"A single-issue candidate who understands the dynamics of Internet politics and can grab the attention of the five or six percent in his district who are passionate on the subject, can then grab the five or six percent of the people across the state or across the country who are equally passionate. A lot of money can be raised that way."

The Internet also has changed the way political campaigns are recruiting and organizing supporters. Following the lead of the Howard Dean campaign in the 2004 primaries, the Bush and Kerry presidential campaigns made extensive use of the Internet to sign-up supporters, mobilize volunteers to help in the "swing" states and organize political efforts on the neighborhood level.

Locally, a fledging organization is forming in an effort to unseat the area's only Republican in Congress, Sue Kelly, R-Katonah, who's district - the 19th - covers northern Rockland and Westchester counties as well as all of Putnam County and parts of Orange and Dutchess counties. The group, take19, has created a Web site and is hoping to elicit support for their efforts.

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