I read this very long Politico article about the Clinton e-mail scandal, so you don’t have to. It goes into insane detail about who did what when, but the scary truth behind it all is this: the grown-ups have no idea about the Internet.
The upshot of the article is that very little evidence suggests Hillary Clinton deliberately broke the law. In fact, she clearly did not know enough about the technology to see that she might be breaking the law. So the real scandal is how clueless she was about the Internet, given that she was Secretary of State.
To be clear: 100% I don’t think this means she should be arrested. If you do, you’d have to convince me that you both know what an ’email server’ is and could properly set one up yourself. I’m pretty sure I could do it, though I haven’t. I am also pretty sure that all of the people in Congress calling for Secretary Clinton’s imprisonment couldn’t pick an email server out of a CompUSA catalog, much less make it work.
Given the circumstances Clinton faced, it’s not at all surprising she chose to use a private email server. Clinton used an email server to get around the State Department’s sclerotic tech systems; this is an organization that only gave its employees proper Internet access in 2001, under Secy. Powell’s tenure.
And while Powell may have suggested Clinton use a private email address to avoid the State Department’s tech problems, the article makes clear that Clinton otherwise had no interest in solving or even looking at those problems. The portrait that emerges is of a person who simply does not understand or appreciate the technology crucial to our society and economy. Here’s a quote:
Hillary Clinton, for her part, proved remarkably uninterested and unfamiliar with new technology. By time she moved into Foggy Bottom, much of the world had jumped aboard the iPhone bandwagon, but Clinton would cling stubbornly to her BlackBerry…
Some version of that first sentence appears in the article several times: Clinton did not know the technology and did not care to know. It’s the indifference, more than anything, that is damning. She not only had zero curiosity about the technology, she surrounded herself with people who didn’t understand it, either:
Aides like Mills, Abedin and Sullivan all said that while they knew her email address, they didn’t understand the technology behind it and were “unaware of existence of private server until after Clinton’s tenure.” Mills said she “was not even sure she knew what a server was at the time” she was Clinton’s chief of staff. It’s not even clear Clinton herself understood her email was running off a homemade computer in her Chappaqua basement: Clinton told the FBI she “had no knowledge of the hardware, software, or security protocols used to construct and operate the servers.”
You might think basic Internet technology would be irrelevant to the State Department — but no. Not only is the Internet extremely useful for organizations with offices spread over nearly every country in the world, but it is also the most promising technology for human knowledge and freedom since this country was founded. The article makes clear that while Clinton said nice things to say about the Internet, she had no real idea what she was talking about.
What’s more, the Internet and related tech pose an extraordinary challenge to international politics as it is presently organized. The politics we take as the foundation of the international system emerged from transformations brought about by the spread of the printing press in Europe; how we understand our world and interact with it is grounded very deeply in the norms and habits of literacy, with respect to the printed page. America’s political foundations — like the idea that a written document is more important than divine right — are a consequence of literacy.
But increasingly, the Internet — with its norms and habits still evolving — is taking precedence over print. We see the beginnings of that process in this country, where many people give as much weight to speculation on the Internet as to published science or official documents. And when billions of people for whom printed matter was a luxury come online and find a world of knowledge at their fingertips, they will probably have some edits for the lucky few in the developed world. Jim Rosenau and I co-authored a book chapter arguing that the developed world can only guess what those changes will look like. The fact that it’s in an actual printed book probably explains why our argument has gotten little traction, but here’s a taste:
…the diffusion and convergence of information technology portends a shift “along the lines of those that began to occur when people first settled into villages and formed nation-states”; indeed, as a result of this shift, “we are on the verge of a major series of social changes that are closely tied to emerging technologies.” Put in more political terms, as whole generations possess the new equipment and acquire the habit of using it reflexively, the tensions between governments and governance, between individuals and organizations, and between users and owners will become more conspicuous and acute and drive crises of authority throughout the world. It is, however, much too early to assert with any confidence the ultimate resolution of these changes because they are still underway; the Internet literate generation has yet to fully replace its predecessors, and even that may only be the first step. Nonetheless, it seems likely that when those in the present younger generations enter the ranks of elites, activists, and thoughtful citizens throughout the world, the nature of politics within and between countries will be, for better or worse, profoundly different than is the case today.
In plain language: we are at the very beginning of the Internet age, and we have no idea where it might go. Probably, it will involve very massive change in our political order, and there’s not much we can do to stop it at this point. To many — even most — governments, that change will seem a challenge, maybe a threat. The governments that least understand the technology, that least appreciate its potential for transformation, are most likely to see it as a threat and respond to these changes poorly.
So developed countries need leaders who can help adapt our global political order to the change, without being baffled or confused or afraid. In that respect, President Obama was a half-step in the right direction. The facts of the email scandal, laid out in painstaking detail, suggest that Hillary Clinton is a step backwards.*
Hillary Clinton is still the best candidate in the race. But she will not be effective as President if she does not understand — at least a little — the Internet. Our future requires that the President see the Internet as more than just a tool, but as a technology that is transforming our world. And the real scandal in the email story is that Hillary Clinton does not.
*In this respect, Donald Trump is cutting off our legs while shouting we’re the best at stepping and there has never been a greater stepper in the history of the planet.