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Technology Plays Key Role in Obama Success Story

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The U.S. Presidential primary season is in full swing with millions of Americans ready to vote this week in the "Super Tuesday" group of state primaries.  The surprise of the campaign thus far has been the emergence of Democratic Senator Barack Obama, who is battling Senator Hillary Clinton for his party’s nomination.  

Obama has garnered strong support from younger demographics - particularly those aged 18 to 30 - who pundits argue are drawn to his emphasis on change.  Somewhat overlooked, however, has been the role that technology has played in Obama’s success.  In fact, he has actively courted the youth vote more than any other candidate both by embracing the use of technology as well as by prioritizing technology policy issues.

The Obama campaign's use of technology, particularly social networks and the Internet, make Canadian political parties' online activities appear positively primitive by comparison.  The campaign's website, which can be individually customized, includes supporter blogs, videos, local events, and a myriad of ways to contribute or participate.

Obama has also emerged as a powerful presence on social networking sites.  The official Obama Facebook support page has more than 300,000 supporters.  There is a similar presence on MySpace, where the campaign has nearly 250,000 MySpace friends, and on YouTube, where the Obama channel has been viewed nearly 12 million times.

The cumulative effect of this substantial online presence is to connect with youth on their terms and in their environment, fostering a new generation of politically active supporters.

Not only has Obama actively used technology to campaign, but he has also prioritized technology policy, adopting detailed positions on issues that have been largely ignored by most politicians in the past.

For example, he has promised to support net neutrality legislation, which advocates argue is needed to stop Internet service providers from establishing a two-tier Internet. His technology plan states that "network providers should not be allowed to charge fees to privilege the content or applications of some web sites and Internet applications over others." It continues by focusing on several other key Internet issues including strengthening privacy protections in the digital age as well as increasing enforcement actions against spammers, spyware creators, and phishing websites.

The same policy also emphasizes access concerns.  It promises to update universal access to telephone service and electricity by providing for universal access to high-speed broadband networks.  The plan also commits to having government serve as a model for Internet use by improving Internet access to government documents and by appointing a Chief Technology Officer for the U.S. federal government.

Digital copyright concerns have also become part of the campaign, with Obama emphasizing the need for balance, acknowledging that "as policymakers, we are in a constant process of examining our laws to ensure that the protections we place on intellectual property are sufficient to encourage invention without hindering innovation that builds on previous work or unfairly limiting consumers from using the goods they purchase in a way that is fair to creators."

While cynics will suggest that a long list of campaign promises means relatively little, the fact that Obama has seen fit to even address these issues represents a dramatic change in the prioritization of technology issues within a major political campaign.  Viewed from a Canadian perspective, few, if any, Canadian leaders or political parties have even established positions on these issues.

Political parties regularly claim to covet the youth vote, yet the Obama campaign has demonstrated that attracting the attention of younger demographics requires more than just a splashy webpage. Instead, he provides evidence that net neutrality, broadband access, and digital copyright have moved beyond mere business concerns into front-line political issues that cannot be easily ignored.

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at or online at