Presidential Candidates Court the Tech World

News & Notes tech contributor Mario Armstrong talks about the most tech savvy presidential candidates, big telecom's push for immunity from wiretap lawsuits, and the growth of social networking niche sites.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Who is the most tech savvy presidential candidate and how can you find the right online network that suits your lifestyle and ambitions?

NEWS & NOTES tech guru Mario Armstrong is here with a scoop.

Hey, Mario.

MARIO ARMSTRONG: Hey, Farai, how are you?

CHIDEYA: I am great. So earlier this week, actor and Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson visited a Dell computer manufacturing facility in Austin, Texas, and he's the first 2008 candidate to visit a Dell facility in the states. He makes the point that this is the only major computer manufacturer that's left in the U.S. manufacturing.

ARMSTRONG: Yes.

CHIDEYA: He's not the only candidate, though to make technology a part of his campaign. So who do you think is among the most tech savvy of the candidates and why?

ARMSTRONG: Oh, that's a tough question. I mean, you're seeing a lot of different things to come from all the different candidates. All of them understand and have been leveraging the Internet to really push for grassroots campaigns. Some are doing it better than others.

As it relates to technology policy, though and understanding where we stand as a country and how we need to stay competitive and how we may need to set up policies in individual states and cities that we can have these economic incentives to make sure that technology innovation is rewarded in this country.

That's where you start to see, maybe a little bit of a difference as to whether or not that's sitting high enough on anyone's agendas. But I can tell you this. I was really impressed with Fred Thompson visiting Dell. He was the first to visit Dell at their headquarters, at their manufacturing plant, which Dell is probably the only personal computers manufacturer that still has manufacturing in the U.S.

They still have about three manufacturings in the U.S. and they said they wanted to introduce the presidential candidates to, not only Dell and the process of innovation and manufacturing, but also to talk about the technology industry and what are some of the changes, what are things happening with the environment? How can companies that produce products like these technology products be more e-friendly and what are some of the policies that just support that. But also to hear from the candidates: What do the candidates need to know about this technology industry and how do we grow more Dells or more opportunities.

So it was really interesting to kind of see that the media didn't really play up on this too much and that's also an indication of whether or not a presidential candidate may start to pay more attention to the technology sector if the media doesn't really cover it.

So but I can tell you this: Barack Obama's Web site has to be - out of all the Web sites so far - the most solid interactive and engaging site. In fact, he's basically created a social network on his own, allowing people to build their own profiles, their own blogs, their own photos and it's called mybarackobama.com.

So he's really - I don't know who's on his staff that's really coming up with these great ideas but they have been the most forward thinking for my standpoint as to how to leverage the Internet for campaigning.

CHIDEYA: So you mention social networking. There - I mean, I have LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace, Friendster…

ARMSTRONG: Yeah and the list goes on…

CHIDEYA: …and Tribe. And I'm really sick of all these log-ins. It's driving me crazy. And yet, you made the argument there are more - yet more. Tell us about that.

ARMSTRONG: There are more. Yes, there are more. This is all been for use so far. Social networking has had its advantages and benefits for making connections, finding old friends, maybe making career changes and things of that nature.

Now, we're focusing on the kids. We have Web sites like N.B.(ph), so this is being geared towards middle school and younger for their social network - I guess they need one, too - and then grandparents, you're not left out of the social networking scene. There's been a few Web sites out there that have been kind of deemed Facebook with wrinkles, if you wish. One of those is called Boomertown and another one's called Eons. So everyone is being approached with this.

But here's where it's going, Farai. It's going more niche and it's going to be more exclusive. I think to catch all sites, the MySpaces, the Facebooks - well, Facebook may be different because they create applications and allow people to create applications - but other catch all social networking sites really are going to have to start to find special niche-interest better.

So I think Web sites like Streetthread.com or even - there's a Web site for black professional businesswomen called Sistapreneurs.com. And it's a solely created social network on their own and there's a Web site where people can now create their own social networks like, Farai. You and of yourself are a social network. You can create one by going to a Web site called Ning, ning.com, N-I-N-G, and actually create your own social network. So we're now getting people and organizations more power to create their own communities. I think we'll start seeing more exclusivity and more niche-driven social networking Web sites.

CHIDEYA: Well, I want to move on to something else a little bit more serious. There is - some of the biggest telecommunications companies are reportedly working with the White House. They want impunity from lawsuits filed because the companies helped U.S. intelligence agencies with warrantless surveillance. Now, that's a lot on the plate. Tell us a little bit more about what's going on with that.

ARMSTRONG: Yeah. Right now, you're finding a campaign that's really involving some of Washington's most prominent lobbying firms and law firms and it's - this issue has really taken on some new urgency and really, they've been talking about wiping out all potential lawsuits that any of these telecommunications companies may have pending against them as it relates to any of the wiretapping with their participation with the White House.

And so this is really a blanket statement that's saying, we want all lawsuits, not just one specific to - specific areas dealing with wiretapping or from a specific date, but anything that's dealing with wiretapping in general we want to be removed from. And the industry, the telecom industry, says - they say that there's a real concern that they could actually go bankrupt with the amount of lawsuits that is pending against them.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, on the other hand, says look, this is obviously a way that they are trying to kill the EFF's goal of really going after - having lawsuits to be able to go after these telecommunications companies, you know. It 's really just - it's one of those things where I don't, you have a lot of people that are lined up that work in the telecom industry right now that if I ever had some connectivity to Bush and the current administration or the former Bush as president and some of these folks or the head of some of these telecom companies, I really don't know how this is going shake out. I can tell you it's not good for the individual.

CHIDEYA: Well, Newsweek called this the secret lobbying campaign your phone company doesn't want you to know about. It sounds as if there's a lot of money running through this, that the telecoms are spending big bucks on lawyers, lobbyists, et cetera. You mentioned the EFF, Electronic Frontier Foundation. Is it a battle with two evenly matched sides or is it kind to be a given that the telcos are going to win?

ARMSTRONG: Yeah. That's what scares me about this. I really would like to be optimistic and keep that, you know, glass half-full - that's how I think and that's how I like to look at things - but in this case, I don't think we have that type of hope. And I think we have to really look at this from a realistic standpoint and say that if I had to place my bets that we would not be winning this - so we, meaning the consumers, are not going to win out or the EFF, I don't think will win out on this particular thing. I think there's too much money. I think there's too much leverage and that's been part of the problem with the telecommunications infrastructure of this country.

CHIDEYA: There have been - as people have been debating wireless, you know, I mean, warrantless wiretapping. There has been this question of how focused it is. Is it something that you're only going to get targeted if you have associations with terrorists or is it in broad strokes? What does this say about that aspect of the debate?

ARMSTRONG: Yeah, and this is where it gets a little scary because right now, it doesn't really speak to where that criteria lies, like how exactly are you defined as someone that is wiretapped? And what does that mean? And we're just talking wiretapping at this point, which is really been about phone conversation.

But don't forget, these media companies or - I call them media companies - these telecommunications companies are migrating into media companies. So that means we're also talking about e-mail being tapped as well. So it's not just what we're saying on the phones, it's also what we're typing in our text messages and e-mail messages.

But you're absolutely right. I still haven't been able to find anything. If anyone out there can point me to the right direction, please show me because I can't find anything that really specifies the criteria as to how you fall into being wiretapped.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, Mario, thanks for the update.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: (Unintelligible) scare you. Yeah, it's a scary reality. My pleasure, Farai.

CHIDEYA: All right. Mario Armstrong, NEWS & NOTES tech contributor. He covers technology for member stations WYPR and WEAA in Baltimore and he spoke with us from the studios of the Baltimore Sun.

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