How much has the online world changed in the past quarter of a century? In the years since Synbolics.com was registered, hundreds of millions of websites have followed that first domain name. According to the VeriSign Domain Name Industry Report, at the end of 2009 there were 192 million domain name registrations across all of the Top Level Domain Names (TLDs).
Of those, .com continues to have the highest base. “The world we live in today is the most interdependent in history,” said former President Bill Clinton, speaking within the Reagan building in Washington D.C. last week at the Policy Impact Forum. “The real question is what can we do through the present state of the Internet to improve the path we’re on.”
Clinton was introduced by VeriSign president Mark McLaughlin as the “first Internet President,” a reasonable contention given the explosive growth of the online world during his terms in office. As McLaughlin pointed out, under Mr. Clinton Internet governance passed to ICANN and the first White House website. (For those interested, you can still hear Socks meow.) McLaughlin and others blogged about 25 years of .com on Facebook.
Clinton made his comments on the day that the FCC’s National Broadband Plan was released, putting the question of how connectivity, innovation and speech should be stimulated (or regulated) into clear relief. Clinton suggested that access framework proposed by the FCC might be needed.
“In America, we opted for a degulation approach in the Internet and cellphone business,” he said, “but a lot of our competitorsnow have better cell phone coverage than we do because they had some regulation to guarantee a framework of universal access.”
In the present, “I’m worried about unequal access,” Clinton said. “We devoted 870 million a year to education technology. We developed the E-Rate so that information could be more publicly shared.”
“In general, our entrepreneurial approach is the best one,” said Clinton, but “there are limits to it and sometimes we need a framework to make sure the markets can continue to grow by having more universal access. So I’m hoping the FCC proposals will do that.”
Clinton talked about how the Internet has been indispensable to the work of his foundation. He also focused on the importance of information technology to his administration.
In 1996, then-President Clinton issued Executive Order 13011 on federal information technology, which ordered the heads of all federal agencies to “refocus information technology management to support directly their strategic missions,” create agency CIOs and “cooperate in the use of information technology to improve the productivity of Federal programs.”
When the decision came to support as a medium, said Clinton, “the Internet was either going to be to the private reserve of a few or to the positive good of all. All the decisions that came were a result of seeing in its infancy the staggering potential we see today.” Clinton also gave credit to Al Gore, who “took unmerciful abuse about a claim he never made.”
Clinton chose to highlight a proposal from President Obama and the Secretary of State for a global health initiative that will leverage information technology. “There has to be a limit to ability to wealthy countries helping poor countries by treating discrete health problems,” he said. “Sooner or later, they have to have [functioning] health systems. In the end, you have to give people the ability to support themselves.”
When considering potential answers to that immense challenge, does the Internet have anything to do with solutions? One area where the Internet has proven its utility is enabling distributed fundraising. Clinton himself said that over half of donations made to victims of the Indonesian tsunami were made online.
In 2010, Clinton said that MassiveGood.com, could a micropayment fundraising model where every time a consumer buys a plane ticket, reserves a hotel room or rents a car, they can choose to donate a small amount to AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria or childrens’ healthcare. “None of this would be conceivable without the Internet,” said Clinton.
“We’re going to have instantaneous posting of all donations and expenditures,” he said. “That’s what we did after the tsunami, with stunning effects in reducing corruption and increasing transparency.”
Clinton took some time to talk about both healthcare, the issue of the day, and climate change, perhaps the issue of the decade. “There are four countries which signed the Kyoto protocoal,” said Clinton: Denmark, Sweden, Germany and the UK. Clinton asserted that was because of the way that they consume and produce energy. ” A wealthy country has to have a new source of jobs every 5-8 years, he said. “The only way can be distributed is through the adequate use of IT. In the years ahead, we ought to do whatever we can increase access, compress time, improve connectivity.” ABC News’ Julie Percha reported more on Clinton’s talk at the Tech Forum, focusing on his remarks on healthcare.
Clinton also issued a challenge to those in the audience that work in technology: “What is the role of IT in dealing with the capacity problems of the poor and the rigidity problems of the wealthy?“
What is necessary to ensure open global access? “First of all, you can’t if nations disagree,” he said. “If they decide to control access, they have some ability to do it. Look at the role tech played at bringing to light what happened in the Iranian election.” Clinton suggested too that the audience consider the impact of cell phones in poor countries. “For every 10% increase of cellphone usage in poor countries, they gain .6% to GDP,” said Clinton, citing a recent mobile research report.
In looking back at the importance of the Internet, Clinton said that “the potential for impact has gone far beyond what I expected. On balance, it’s an instrument of freedom, not repression.”
The former President offered some insight into his use of technology during a question and answer with McLaughlin after his keynote. When asked what his three favorite websites were, Clinton chose political ones: Politico, the Huffington Post and FireDogLake. Clinton affirmed the substantive contributions that websites can make, although “don’t have to do what newspapers have to do every day,” as “some only have to have three serious articles a week.” Clinton said that he’s “worried about the ability to maintain any newspaper” in the years ahead.
Clinton also fessed up to his favorite device: an iPhone, “because I can get everything on it.” He said he tried to stay away from the BlackBerry “because I’m still obsessive,” sharing in the process that former President George H. W. Bush was “constantly doing email.”
Kara Swisher from All Things Digital was also on hand at the 25 Years of .Com Tech Impact Forum, where she moderated a panel on the future of Web technology. She recorded a video of the Q&A after the keynote that can be viewed at Boomtown, in “Bill Clinton talks about his Internet legacy.”