November 17, 2008

Obama's Restricted Freedom

After the American Century

There is a curious irony in President Barack Obama's e-mail situation. While a Senator he was glued to his Blackberry and emailed constantly. As President, it appears he will have to give up his freedom in cyberspace. Not only will official regulations require that all his official business be preserved for posterity, but also national security mandates that his emailing be restricted to harmless topics, if not cut off altogether.

The erosion of the line between public and private is a problem for all Internet users. Google can mine information on those who use its search engine, strangers can see photographs we post on Facebook, and huge amounts of personal information ends up on the WWW, often without the persons described, discussed or documented being aware of it. Therefore, the President has to become an intensely private person, with little or no personal presence on the Internet, however many official web pages and news stories there are about him or her.

In Obama's case this seems particularly ironic. More than any other candidate, he mastered the new media, and used it to raise money and coordinate his campaign. He apparently also used it to stay in touch with ordinary people - old friends whom he could trust to tell him what the buzz was on the street. E-mail gave him access to life beyond the bubble of celebrity and security. But now, for the next four, quite possibly eight years, Obama will enter a cocoon of cyber-isolation - or he may become a reader but not a sender of emails. One assumes he will still have a computer and that he will be able to surf the web, perhaps under a new assumed name each day.

The President is seen as the most powerful person in the United States, yet his movements are restricted, his contacts are monitored, his every decision recorded, and his email cut off. While there are compensations, to be sure, holding that office to a considerable degree restricts freedom and discourages spontaneity. For decades the President has not been able, on the spur of the moment, to jump in the car and go for an aimless, relaxing jaunt into the countryside. It seems the freedom to roam in cyberspace will be restricted as well.

But on the bright side, for at least four years Obama will not get any spam!