Q&A: CDD's Jeff Chester


Jeff Chester is the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a national, not-for-profit group based in Washington, D.C., whose aim is to promote an electronic media system that fosters democratic expression and human rights. He spoke to Adweek about a range of topics including the Obama administration, online security and privacy, Google in China and other online regulatory issues.

Adweek: How would you rate the current administration in Washington?

Jeff Chester: Barack Obama became our first president to win office by using a wide range of interactive online marketing techniques. They know this business from the inside. The administration is immersed in the worlds of digital advertising and social media. They have placed high-ranking officials in the White House who have roots to Silicon Valley giants. The Obama administration has made a very promising digital start in its first year. Perhaps most critically, they're using social and other new media to make government more open and accessible to the public. A brief review of some of the administration's online-related initiatives shows that they're aware that online media requires various regulatory safeguards. For example: the [Food and Drug Administration's] current review on the role digital advertising plays promoting pharmaceuticals and health issues; the [Federal Trade Commission's] very focused examination on the impact of digital marketing on personal privacy; the support for a broadband "network neutrality" policy at the [Federal Communications Commission]; and the recent call by Secretary of State Clinton for global Internet freedom.

How would you rate the administration in terms of addressing cybertheft?
Given the state of the economy, especially the banking and personal finance sector, as well as the healthcare debate, it's understandable that the administration has taken a little more time to address cyber crime and security in a comprehensive away. The Obama Justice Department, however, appears to be well-focused on the issue.
How would you rate it in terms of addressing online predators?
The Obama administration appears to be addressing concerns over online predation responsibly. They have key government agencies engaged in the issue. In the past, this issue has been treated rather sensationally. I think wiser heads are prevailing here.
And how would you rate it in terms of addressing privacy rights (or the lack thereof)?
Under President Obama, the FTC has finally awakened from its long deregulatory slumber. Industry self-regulation is now longer the digital dogma. Under [FTC] chairman Leibowitz, the commission is thoughtfully analyzing how digital marketing is contributing to the erosion of personal privacy. I believe that it's possible that the FTC may contribute to one of Obama's chief legacy's -- helping protect consumers in the online marketing era.

How would you rate the administration in terms of setting up smart regulation for the digital world?
Smart regulation for the commercial digital world is what the Obama administration needs to broker. There's a balance to be made between promoting the utility, power, economic clout and contemporary relevance of say, a Facebook and a Google, and ensuring there's also a competitive and consumer protection-focused online environment. It does remain to be seen whether the administration will have the insight and courage to rein in powerful companies and address digital business practices that raise serious consumer concerns.

What's the most important issue you think needs to be tackled on a regulatory level? And is it being addressed adequately?
Protecting personal privacy and ensuring equitable access to inexpensive broadband are the two most critical regulatory issues. I believe the FTC is helping seriously advance the former issue, but the FCC's reliance on market competition for broadband is unlikely to bring us closer to ensuring all Americans, regardless of income and geography, have quality high-speed online services.
What's your reaction to Google pulling out of China after all it's gone through trying to establish a beachhead there? Does it signal trouble for other digital companies trying to access China's huge population?
Google, Microsoft , Yahoo and other online giants should have never agreed to the Chinese government's censorious conditions in the first place. These deals cast a shadow on the reputation of the companies. The trade-off they made was based on wanting to cash in on what will be the largest market for online services; they also rationalized that by providing a more limited search service they would help eventually bring about greater democracy. They were naive at best -- complicit at worst. The attack on Google (and other companies) was a human rights wake-up call for the company. It's better they leave then agree to prop up a government that doesn't support human rights.  I hope the Obama administration will ask that other companies, including Microsoft and major advertising companies, consider withdrawing from the China market. They all should be held accountable to take a stand where democracy -- not digital dollars -- comes first.

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