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Politics and the Internet Timeline Updates

BY Micah L. Sifry | Sunday, December 30 2012

Since launching our "Politics and the Internet" Timeline last August, we've gotten dozens of suggestions for revisions and additions from all kinds of people. We made a few right off the bat, and then decided to let them accumulate and do updates on a more periodic basis. The winter holiday break also seemed like a perfect time to get some distance on events, in terms of deciding what to include or leave out from recent developments in our world. As I noted in the original post on the timeline, this isn't an "official" list, but rather just our subjective judgment of the most important and notable developments at the intersection of technology and politics in the United States, online, and in the international arena. If you would like to suggest an important development that we may have missed, or make a correction to the record, please use this form.

Here's what we've added:

December 9, 1968--Douglas Engelbart's "Mother of All Demos"
On this day at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco, inventor and computer pioneer Douglas Englebart, along with 17 researchers working with him at the Stanford Research Institute, made a 90-minute live demonstration of an array of experimental technologies including the computer mouse (which he invented), video conferencing, hypertext links, word processing, "what you see is what you get" editing, and collaborative real-time editing. The historic demonstration is widely regarded as having blazed the trail toward human-computer interaction, showing how the computer could be used for everyday tasks. Video of Englebart's presentation can be watched here.

March 26-28, 1991--First Computers, Freedom & Privacy conference
This annual conference of academics and technologists was originally sponsored by Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, and since 2000 has been run under the aegis of the Association for Computing Machinery. The first CFP, which took place in Burlingame, CA, began with the following call to arms from its lead organizer, Jim Warren, a computer programmer and journalist. He wrote, presciently, "We are at a crossroads—as individuals, organizations and governments increasingly depend upon computerized information and digital communications....Customs, policies, regulations and statutes governing this new environment will be created. The question is: Who will create them and what will they be?”

October 20, launched by the Clinton Administration
The first official website managed by the White House was launched on this date. Here's how the Clinton administration described its achievement: "In an effort to make government information more readily accessible to citizens across the country, Vice President Gore, joined by Associate Director for Technology in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Lionel S. (Skip) Johns and world-renowned artist Peter Max, today (10/20) unveiled the first interactive, multimedia, electronic citizens' handbook on the White House, including detailed information about Cabinet-level and independent agencies, and information about the First Family and the White House. 'Welcome to the White House: An Interactive Citizens' Handbook' provides a single point of access to all electronic government information on the Internet, a vast electronic computer network used by people in more than 150 countries. Examples of accessible material demonstrated at today's event include information about the President and Vice President and their families, a virtual tour of the White House, detailed information about Cabinet-level and independent agencies, a subject-searchable index of federal information, and a map of Washington, D.C."

August 12-15, 1996--First online chats during a party national convention
In August 1996, the Republican National Convention became the first convention of either party to have a website and conduct online "chats." Using IRC chat forums, the convention hosted in San Diego that year had dozens of Members of Congress and GOP officials participate in chats with thousands of voters unable to attend in person. Notable participants were presidential nominee Senator Bob Dole and then sitting Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

Fall 1999--Presidential candidate Bill Bradley raises a million dollars online
The first presidential candidate to push online fundraising raised $650,000 over the web in the third quarter of 1999 and went over a million by the end of the year, according to his campaign manager Gina Glantz. The campaign had petitioned the Federal Elections Commission early in 1999 to approve matching funds for internet credit card contributions. 

September 17, 2001--The first "warblog" appears, launched by Matt Welch
Warblogs(also known as "milblogs") first appeared in the wake of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, written primarily by American bloggers who were focused first on the war in Afghanistan and then later Iraq. Many bloggers were unhappy with mainstream media coverage of these wars. Libertarian writer Matt Welch is recognized as the first to blog under this banner; law professor Glenn Reynolds is given credit for popularizing the field via his Instanpundit blog.

January 2001: The first gamified political activism website launched
Launched by the Republican National Committee in 2001, the volunteer website was the first "gamified" political web site that awarded points for actions taken on the site, a store for redeeming points earned, the first live chats with high level Administration officials with volunteers and was a critical piece of the Republican efforts offline.

January 2003--First use of online customized voting instructions
In January 2003, the Bush-Cheney '04 presidential campaign tested what would be used as a part of their November 2004 GOTV efforts. Caucus instructions with driving directions to their location were put into the body of an email that was customized to the individual voter and then emailed to hundreds of thousands of voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, according to then e-campaign director Chuck Defeo. The success of this effort led to this being repeated in a dozen swing states in November 2004.

October 4-5, 2003--The first "Bloggercon" conference occurs at Harvard
Focusing on the rise of "weblogs" in journalism, education, science, business and politics, the first Bloggercon was a seminal event that brought together many of the early American pioneers at the intersection of blogging, technology and politics. Bloggercon was hosted by Dave Winer, moderated by Lance Knobel, Ed Cone and Christopher Lydon, and included presenters Joshua Marshall, Scott Rosenberg, Chris Lock, Jeff Jarvis, Scott Heiferman, Dan Gillmor, Glenn Reynolds, Cameron Barrett, Elizabeth Spiers, Eugene Volokh, Doc Searls and Halley Suitt. Topics covered included "Will easy and inexpensive publishing technology change the face of politics, business, journalism, the law, medicine, engineering and education? Is a revolution underway, or are weblogs just the latest Internet craze? Is blogspace a Second Superpower, a ride on the Cluetrain, the venue for the next election or is it even worse than it appears, just good enough to make a difference, or the revolution so many say it is?" More details here.

January 2004--First "dashboard" for campaign activists
In January 2004, the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign added a "Volunteer Action Center" at that was completely integrated with the offline political operation. When online volunteers signed up their information was available to field staff in real time and field staff were required to send them an email with local information. Upcoming local events (rally, phone bank, etc.) were posted on the homepage for the volunteer based on where they lived. Participation in these events or the individual actions taken online were stored and credited to the individual user as well as the geographic area they lived in. Metrics were applied to encourage activism in swing voter areas.

March 1, 2004--DemocracyInAction (now known as Salsa) founded
The first affordable organizing platform for progressive nonprofits and Democrats in the U.S was founded on this date by Chris Lundberg and April Pedersen. Thousands of organizations now use Salsa to organize, fundraise, and build a base of support online. A recent leadership shift that led to Lundberg and Pedersen's resignation has raised concerns that Salsa will no longer only cater to progressives.

May 24, 2004--First Personal Democracy Forum conference
The first PDF conference took place at the New School for Social Research in New York City on this date. Co-founded by Andrew Rasiej and Micah L. Sifry to focus on the ways that technology was starting to change politics and government, PDF 2004's speakers included Senators Ron Wyden and Bob Kerrey, Congressman Anthony Weiner, Ralph Reed, Joe Trippi, Arianna Huffington, Jeff Jarvis, Jason Calacanis, Eli Pariser, and Mark Halperin. Afterwards, the website was launched as a hub for the ongoing conversation. In 2007, PDF launched a second site,, which has grown into a news site employing several editors and journalists, covering the worldwide developments in tech-enabled politics and civic engagement. In 2008, the conference expanded to a two-day event, and in more recent years it has also added an unconference day as well as a "PDF Applied" weekend hackathon.

December 2004--Global Voices Online founded
Global Voices Online, a nonprofit international network of bloggers, translators and citizen journalists, was founded as an outgrowth of an international bloggers meeting that took place at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School in December 2004. The founders were Ethan Zuckerman, a technologist who had earlier helped run, an earlier startup, and Rebecca MacKinnon, a former CNN bureau chief. Global Voices reports on and aggregates the work of local bloggers from every corner of the world. A number of its members have also gone on to play important roles in pro-democracy movements in countries including Tunisia, Egypt, Kenya and Bahrain.

August 2-5, 2007--YearlyKos blogger convention holds Democratic Presidential debate
All the major Democratic presidential candidates (save Sen. Joe Biden) appeared at a primary debate hosted as part of the second annual YearlyKos convention, a volunteer organization made up of readers of the Daily Kos website. The debate was moderated by bloggers Joan McCarter and Jeffrey Feldman, along with the New York Times's Matt Bai, and marked the maturation of the "netroots" movement as a major political force within the Democratic party in America. The debate made headlines when Sen. Hillary Clinton was pressed on her decision to accept campaign contributions from lobbyists.

October 17, 2007: voter-generated forum launches
After YouTube partnered with CNN on inviting video questions from the public for Democratic and Republican primary debates in the summer of 2007, Personal Democracy Forum decided to partner with a group of YouTube community members led by teacher and programmer David Colarusso on building a platform that would allow members of the public to choose their top questions for the candidates. That forum,, launched in 2007 with the co-sponsorship of the New York Times editorial board, MSNBC, and about 50 political blogs from across the spectrum. About 125,000 votes were cast on more than 300 questions submitted. The top 10 included questions on net neutrality, atheism, medical marijuana, warrantless wiretapping, corporate personhood, and government spending. Edwards, Gravel, Huckabee, Kucinich, and Obama each answered at least one of the top ten. Another 27,000 votes were cast judging their responses. In 2010, with the support of the Knight Foundation, PDF built an updated version of the platform, using Google Moderator's question-filtering tools, focused on congressional and state-level races around the United States. Versions of the 10Questions platform have also been used to foster voter participation in elections in Brazil and Mexico.

October 19, 2007--Comcast violates net neutrality principle
On this day, the AP reported that telco giant Comcast was blocking BitTorrent file-sharing, a violation of the principle of network neutrality, which holds that internet service providers should not discriminate in favor or against any particular content moving through their networks. This was the first time a major commercial internet provider was revealed to be violating net neutrality. A year later, the FCC ruled that Comcast was in violation of federal policy for this action.

September, 2008--First "Apps for Democracy" Contest Held by Washington, DC
The first government authority to open up its data and hold a contest for third-party application developers was Washington, DC, in the fall of 2008. The district had, under the leadership of its then-CTO Vivek Kundra, already made several hundred city databases available for public usage, but wanted to see how to make this "data catalog" more useful. Working with Peter Corbett of iStrategy Labs, the city announced an innovation contest called "Apps for Democracy." In just a few weeks, 47 iPhone, Facebook and web apps were submitted, which would have cost the city in excess of $2.3 million if they had been developed under typical procurement methods. Apps for Democracy has inspired dozens of similar contests around the world. For more information, go here.

April 6, 2009--Facebook begins experiment in user-democracy
On this date, Facebook users were invited--via a post from founder Mark Zuckerberg--to vote on the company's governance rules. Account holders were given two options 1) the new Facebook Principles and Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, which incorporated feedback from users and experts received during an earlier 30-day comment period, or 2) the site's current Terms of Use, which were developed by Facebook and did not go through an outside comment period. Earlier, the company had created a “virtual town hall” for discussion of these documents and promised, “If more than 7,000 users comment ... we will also give you the opportunity to participate in a vote in which you will be provided alternatives.” Even more unusual, the company vowed, “The vote shall be binding on us if more than 30 percent of all active registered users” vote. “Companies like ours need to develop new models of governance,” Zuckerberg had said back in February 2009 on announcing this new approach. “Rather than simply reissue a new Terms of Use, the changes we’re announcing today are designed to open up Facebook so that users can participate meaningfully in our policies and our future.” Facebook had 52 million users when this policy was announced.

April 22, 2010--First Twitter interview with British Prime Minister
Gordon Brown, the Labor prime minister, answered questions from users of Twitter via Tweetminster, a hub for connecting users and politicians. The interview took 15 minutes and was entirely conducted in 140 character tweets. For example, asked about his Tory opponent David Cameron's "big society," Brown tweeted, 'Tories' 'Big Society' is cover for DIY services. Big society = Big cuts.''

December 21, 2010--FCC passes "Preserving the Open Internet" rules
Responding to competing pressures from consumer advocates and industry groups, the FCC adopted new rules protecting net neutrality for the most part on wireline internet service but leaving wireless service relatively unprotected. Fixed broadband providers were prohibited from blocking lawful content, applications, services or "unreasonably" discriminating in transmitting network traffic; mobile broadband providers were held to much looser standards.

September 20, 2011--International "Open Government Partnership" Launches
The Open Government Partnership is an multilateral international effort intended to encourage governments to focus on transparency, citizen participation, accountability, and technology and innovation in country "action plans." The idea is to connect participating countries with each other and with experts in civil society organizations who will share their expertise as each country pursues its action plan over the course of the year, culminating in a self-assessment and another report compiled by "well-respected local governance experts," according to a roadmap published on the partnership's website. The effort was formally launched by eight founding governments (Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, Philippines, South Africa, United Kingdom, United States), who endorsed an "Open Government Declaration" in New York in tandem with the annual UN General Assembly, and unveiled their country action plans. Since then, the OGP has welcomed the commitment of 47 additional governments.

August 3, 2012--Google enables advertisers to target ads by congressional district
While online advertisers have long been able to target voters by zipcode, Google is the first platform to enable them to target their audience specifically by congressional district. (The new functionality adds a level of granularity that isn't available through Facebook.)

August 14, 2012--Malaysian activists stage one day internet blackout to protest proposed government legislation
Malaysian activists and business owners staged a one-day Internet blackout on August 14 to raise public awareness of Amendment 114A to the Evidence Act. The amendment would make people responsible for any content coming out of their computers, mobile devices or Internet connections — including anonymous comments left on their blogs and social media accounts. It would also mean that business owners would be held responsible for information posted on the Internet by users taking advantage of the free WiFi available in cafes and other commercial venues. People accused of hosting or disseminating dissent via anonymous comments would be deemed guilty until they prove themselves innocent, so one could even be held accountable for information posted on an account that had been hacked.

Late August, 2012--Cryptoparties, do-it-yourself user privacy training sessions, go viral
Born in Australia, when digital freedom activist Asher Wolf began discussing the idea on Twitter following the passage of that country's Cybercrime Legislation Amendment Bill 2011 and the proposal of a two-year data retention law, "crypoparties" took off as do-it-yourself training sessions in online privacy self-protection. Within days of the idea appearing, events had been held in events have been held in Sydney, Melbourne, Berlin, Cairo, Tel Aviv and several U.S. cities. Participants teach each other the basics of practical cryptography such as how to use the Tor anonymity network, the principles of key signing parties, and the use of virtual private networks.

August 28, 2012--Jordanian websites go dark in protest of proposed legislation to censor internet
Over two hundred Jordanian websites went dark in a anti-SOPA-like protest of draft legislation that would allow the government to block and censor Internet content. The action was coordinated by a grassroots organization of tech savvy Jordanians and the editors of various Jordanian websites, with blackout screens on dozens of widely read digital news sites and blogs. The blackout was augmented by Twitter participation via the hashtags #blackoutjo and #freenetjo and a website called 7oryanet (Freedomnet). Queen Noor (@Queen Noor), widow of the previous ruler, King Hussein of Jordan, joined the protest on Twitter, calling the proposed legislation "hypocrisy."

August 28 and September 4, 2012--"Internet Freedom" embraced in Republican and Democratic party platforms
The concept of "Internet freedom" became part of each major American political party's national platform for the first time in 2012. The move addresses the recent demands of Internet activists and groups for both parties to adopt language addressing the issue, and illustrates the enduring impact of the movement created by the broad protests against the Stop Online Piracy Act in January. The text of the Republican plank is here; the text of the Democratic plank is here.

August 29, 2012--President Obama does an "Ask Me Anything" session on
For the first time, a sitting president went live on the popular user forum to take questions from members. The resulting burst attention actually overwhelmed the site, which normally gets about one million unique visitors a day, causing its servers to go down. His campaign later said that the online appearance on the site had caused a spike in voter registration among young people, a target audience.

September 28, 2012--France's techies block tax increases with online "Pigeons" protest
Calling themselves “Les Pigeons” (French slang for “suckers”), a group of young Internet entrepreneurs launched an online campaign in protest of the government's planned tax hike, which they said would hurt small companies like startups. Prominent French bloggers like The Liberal Parisian and Kelblog published posts in support of les pigeons while the Twitter hashtag #GEONPi trended and the campaign caught the attention of the mainstream media. In a practically unprecedented instance of a social media campaign affecting government policy in France, les pigeons were successful: President François Hollande’s government rolled back its planned tax hike. The campaign began with an opinion piece published on September 28 in the French business daily La Tribune by venture capitalist Jean-David Chamboredon, the leader of an IT investors' lobbying group called France Digitale. This article would have gone unnoticed had it not been for a dedicated Facebook page, introduced on September 28 by the founders of young internet start-ups such as Whoozer and Yopps to share their indignation. The page soon had 72,000 followers, while Twitter users replaced their profile picture with a pigeon.

October 19, 2012--Iceland citizens vote in favor of crowdsourced Constitution
Iceland's new constitution, drawn up in the wake of the collapse of its financial and political institutions in 2008, was affirmed in a nonbinding vote participated in by nearly half the country's citizens, with 66% voting in favor. The process of drafting the new governing document made extensive use of crowdsourcing along with more traditional methods of consulting experts. The “crowdsourcing body in charge” was a council of 25 members elected by popular vote from a field of 522 candidates over the age of 18. This council posted draft clauses on a weekly basis, with comments from the public invited via Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. More than 1600 comments were submitted.

November 6, 2012--With the help of digital infrastructure, Obama wins re-election
Barack Obama won re-election to a second term as the 44th president of the United States with a campaign that was undergirded by disciplined digital effort that relied heavily on targeted voter communications, an ambitious ground game, and extensive and innovative use of data analysis, social media and online fundraising tools. For more details on the results of the Obama and Romney digital efforts, read this.

November 29-December 2, 2012--Syria temporarily cuts off access to the Internet
For the first time since the start of Syria's bloody civil war, nearly all access to the Internet was halted inside the country for three days. Internet connection was restored after only three days. Afterwards, the Electronic Frontier Foundation reported that the restoration of online communication was accompanied by powerful new malware that targets anti-regime activists. "One of the few IP addresses to stay online was the address implicated in the ongoing campaign of surveillance malware targeting Syrian dissidents since November 2011," EFF said, "including a fake anti-hacking tool, a fake Skype encryption tool, and
fake documents allegedly pertaining to the formation of the leadership council of the Syrian revolution. Now EFF has detected two new campaigns of surveillance malware associated with the same IP address — the first we have detected since this summer."

December 10, 2012--Facebook ends its experiment with user-democracy
Facebook's experiment with involving its users in establishing their own rules of self-governance was ended when only a half million account holders voted to keep the existing system. That was nowhere close to 30 percent threshold needed under the rules now abolished. (With one billion users, a binding vote would have required 300 million people to participate.) Facebook had announced just prior to Thanksgiving that it wanted to end the process that invited its users to vote on changes to the way the site was governed. The reason, the company said in a post online, was that the policy was resulting in a lot of low-quality feedback. The company wants to instead hold online townhalls to engage in conversations with its users about its policies.

December 12, 2012--The Pope joins Twitter
Two weeks after the Vatican announced that the Pope would be joining Twitter, Benedict XVI sent his first message to 1.3 million followers in eight different languages Twitter accounts on this day. It read, "Dear friends, I am pleased to get in touch with you through Twitter. Thank you for your generous response. I bless you from all my heart." The Vatican also released a photo showing the Pope tweeting on an iPad. His handle, @pontifex, is Latin for "bridge builder."