Craig Newmark likes to call himself a “community organizer.” In 1995, the stout, New Jersey-born, soft-spoken 55-year-old launched online classified listings site Craigslist, which has been slowly suffocating the newspaper business ever since. He’s also been an outspoken supporter and adviser to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America as well as DonorsChoose.org and VotoLatino.org. But besides his official title as Craigslist’s “customer service representative,” he’s also taken on a role for Barack Obama: “official technology surrogate.”
Mr. Newmark’s title allows him to speak about technology on behalf of Mr. Obama in blogs, stump speeches and the press. On Oct. 23, he was in New York at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism’s New Business Models for News summit and took a lunch break to explain his support for Mr. Obama at the New York Observer office. This week, he has been cold-calling voters for Mr. Obama from a cubicle in Ferndale, Mich. “Everything I do allows me to keep my butt in a chair, which is very attractive,” Mr. Newmark said with a pause for laughs. “But what I’m doing is helping the other people who really are doing the heavy lifting.”
Mr. Newmark is a self-professed geek and somewhat of an Obama fanboy. He’s always sporting his Obama watch and button and often calls Mr. Obama a hero for grass-roots democracy. Mr. Newmark told The Observer that he has only “chatted” with Mr. Obama up to now, but he is directly communicating with Mr. Obama’s technology advisers. Although the Obama campaign will not comment officially on who is or who is not part of an advisory staff, Mr. Newmark said the team includes Julius Genachowski, Mr. Obama’s Harvard Law classmate and former member of Barry Diller’s Office of the Chairman at IAC/InterActiveCorp; Judith Estrin, former chief technology officer of Cisco Systems and current CEO of JLabs LLC; Joe Rospars, who serves as Mr. Obama’s current new media director and is the founder of an Internet consultancy firm based in Washington, D.C.; and Alec Ross, Mr. Obama’s official science adviser and senior vice president of the nonprofit One Economy Corporation, based in D.C. Former F.C.C. chairmen William Kennard and Reed Hundt are also in the mix.
Mr. Newmark, who now lives in San Francisco, said anyone who cares about the Internet knows that Mr. Obama is their candidate. Workers at Silicon Valley’s 20 most profitable companies (including Apple, Yahoo!, Google and Hewlett-Packard) have contributed five times more money to Barack Obama’s campaign than to John McCain’s, according to Silicon Valley’s The Mercury News, and Mr. Obama has successfully used the Internet to garner those donations.
Certainly, Mr. Obama has been courting the technology community since his early Senate days. He attended one of Google’s secret staff meetings in 2004 and has had a well-established relationship with the company ever since. Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently officially endorsed Mr. Obama and may be vying for a spot in his official cabinet. In November 2007, he went to Google’s headquarters again to present his technology policies, which are framed around the company’s ideology: The Internet should be a free, open market for the exchange of ideas, and a tool to allow the American people to be in better touch with their elected representatives and create an open democracy.
Mr. Obama’s technology platform proposes new subsidies for Internet broadband access in rural areas and advocated for “net neutrality,” which would ensure that companies like Google wouldn’t get an increased tax by an Internet service provider for fast service.
But at its core, Mr. Obama plans to use the Internet to encourage a more open government and entice citizen participation. Mr. Obama wants to appoint a “chief technology officer” who would ensure the government holds meetings that are open to the public and are recorded for live Webcasts. He also plans on offering wikis and Web spaces on the White House Web site for the public to post comments on proposed legislation five days before it is signed. Mr. Obama also pledges to double basic science research funding.
Technology has been a boon for Mr. Obama during the campaign, not only in terms of fund-raising, but also because it helped his campaign respond quickly to smears from Mr. McCain.
John McCain admits he is computer illiterate and seldom writes e-mails or surfs the Web. But he has received endorsements from prominent tech stars including Cisco Systems chief executive John Chambers, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and former Hewlett-Packard chief Carly Fiorina.
Mr. McCain plans to leave most of the financial backing of the tech community in the private sector, unlike Mr. Obama, who sees government taking an active role. Instead of a CTO, Mr. McCain plans on hiring tech-savvy officials throughout the government to work on problem-solving in every sector. He proposes tax breaks and financial benefits for companies that provide broadband services to low-income and rural users (just like Mr. Obama). He also supports easing visa rules for immigrants with tech skills.
But Mr. Newmark still sees Mr. Obama as the obvious choice. He said Mr. McCain views the Internet as a threat. He believes that Mr. Obama, at heart, is an optimist about the Web’s potential to generate community among American people and provide transparency in government. “When I heard him speak, I felt this unfamiliar sensation, which I’ve only felt a few other times in my life,” Mr. Newmark explained (on his second Diet Coke). “Later I would find out it is called leadership. You need someone who is going to get people together to do stuff. The American people, we’re really doing stuff when we’re led.”
When he’s not campaigning for Obama and grass-roots democracy, Mr. Newmark spends most of his time dealing with customer service issues at craigslist.org (mostly spammers and false identities), blogging at cnewmark.com and advising numerous nonprofit groups. He graduated from Morristown High School in New Jersey in 1972 as a self-professed “nerd.” In his senior yearbook picture, he looks like a thinner version of Seth Rogen, with overgrown sideburns and taped-together glasses. He worked for IBM, Charles Schwab and Bank of America before working on Craigslist full time. In 2005, Time named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Mr. Newmark hopes he can leverage his influence to advocate for his own technology ideas, including implementing city government phone services (like 311 in New York) in all states and organizing online information by implementing Internet-based platforms (modeled by sites like Digg.com) that allows users to rate and prioritize ideas and articles.
But mostly, he just wants the kids to vote. “I’ve actually told the kids, get off my lawn,” (another pregnant pause for laughs) “and vote. Are you guys the next greatest generation? Is that for real? Why don’t you just do it and you’ll see.”