Readers like you keep news free for everyone.

More than 5,000 readers have already pitched in to keep free access to The Journal.

For the price of one cup of coffee each week you can help keep paywalls away.

Support us today
Not now
Dublin: 16°C Monday 15 August 2022

Here are 9 examples of politicians being clueless about the internet and technology

“The internets is an amazing series of tubes that you should pay for” – elected officials.

Source: AP/Press Association Images

ELECTED OFFICIALS COME from many different backgrounds, and have diverse areas of expertise.

Which is handy, because they make law.

When it comes to technology, the internet, and social media, however, too many politicians from Ireland and beyond, seem to have a blind spot.

Despite being entrusted to make and update legislation on data protection, privacy, digital rights, cyberbullying, and other serious and rapidly-evolving issues, legislators have time and again shown their basic lack of understanding of the subject matter.

Sometimes that cluelessness is deliberately (even proudly) revealed, and other times it emerges from the scare-mongering that accompanies The Next Big Internet Terror.

Just as often, they show a worrying lack of knowledge about basic technological concepts, by trying to explain them.

Here are some of the biggest facepalm moments:

1. ‘Series of tubes’

Probably the mother of all internet gaffes. Then 82-year-old Alaska Senator Ted Stevens was (vigorously) debating net neutrality in 2006, and got excited about Netflix (though he couldn’t remember the name).

He also bemoaned the fact that his staff had sent him “an internet”, and he didn’t get it until the next day.

His speech reached a climax with this now infamous explanation:

The internet is not something that you just dump something on. It’s not a big truck – it’s a series of tubes!

And a meme was born.

Source: bluefalcon561/YouTube

2. ‘This type of thing has to stop…’

Senator Fidelma Healy-Eames got plenty of unwanted attention last March for her “Fraping” comments.

While her understanding of the phenomenon was a bit lurid and overstated (“it’s where you’re raped on Facebook”), it’s equally worrying to see a legislator struggling with statutes around the subject they are passionately debating:

What about sexting…I heard recently that that is a criminal offence. Can you verify that, Minister?

There’s another all-too-common problem with the Senator’s logic – what exactly could legislation actually do to stop a phone being picked up, and someone using a Facebook account without permission?

Senator Healy-Eames is far from alone in this, but her “moment” is a good illustration of the troubling combination that often mars political debate about the internet: fear and misunderstanding.

Source: OireachtasRetortTV/YouTube

3. ‘Rumours on the internets’

You’ve probably heard “internets” used ironically so many times, that when you watch this clip of George W Bush, you’ll be convinced he’s speaking with tongue in cheek.

He’s not.

Source: mastegas/YouTube

He was answering a question about the reintroduction of the draft in the US, during a presidential debate against John Kerry in October 2004.

Bush had previously used the now-ubiquitous term “internets” back in 2000, again during a presidential debate, this time against Al Gore.

An audience member asked him what could be done to protect children from immorality in the media.

Bush replied: “We can have filters on Internets where public money is spent.”

4. ‘It’s amazing!’

In 2012, Mitt Romney – another guy trying to become the world’s most powerful person – got some stick for being a little bit too “amazed” by touch-screen technology on a campaign stop in Pennsylvania.

Source: hmgblt47/YouTube

A couple of things to note: the shop in question is called WaWa, not “WaWas”, so picture Enda Kenny repeatedly saying: “Have you ever been to Centras? Centras is great…”

Second, WaWa’s touch-screen ordering is really convenient, but it’s NOT amazing.

Your sandwich isn’t made by a robot, and you get it in the time it takes the human being behind the counter to make it.

wawa Source: YouTube

5. ‘It facilitates things enormously’

Gunther Oettinger is the European Commissioner-designate for Digital Economy and Society.

Which means he’s in charge of the EU’s policy on a number of highly-contentious and complex issues like privacy, data protection, surveillance, and corporate monopolies.

Good thing, then, that he’s such a dab hand at the old internet, himself, as he bragged in an interview with German newspaper Passauer Neue Presse, earlier this month.

I go online every day…Sometimes I even put my own appointments into the calendar using my iPhone.
When I am searching for  information, I look on the internet…It facilitates things enormously.

Belgium EU Energy Source: AP/Press Association Images

All that recent celebrity photo hacking? It wouldn’t have happened to Commissioner Techbot McSavvy over here, as he previously explained - spectacularly confusing private sharing with publication, in the process.

If someone is dumb enough as a celebrity to take a nude photo of themselves and put it online, they surely can’t expect us to protect them.
I mean stupidity is something you cannot – or only partly – save people from.

He’s more right than he knows.

6. ‘Should they actually PAY to post something on the internet?’

No. No they shouldn’t.

In the same Seanad committee debate that introduced the word “Fraping” to the Oireachtas minutes, Senator Eamonn Coghlan made a novel suggestion as to how to prevent anonymous cyber-bullying.

Source: Rory Flynn/YouTube

As well as being obviously unworkable (no bank account or passport = no internets for you), Coghlan’s proposal starts off with (again) a basic misunderstanding:

If somebody is to sign up to seek an IP address,…

Ehm…it doesn’t work like that.

7. ‘Maybe we should hire her!’

In 2011, Pennsylvania Representative Tom Marino asked Google lawyer Katherine Oyama why it was so difficult to remove pirated stuff from the internet, given the relative success of tackling child pornography.

I want to thank Google for what it did for child pornography – getting it off the website…


He also suggested “hiring a bunch of whizz kids”, and expressed awe at the fact that his daughter recognised a website as involving copyright infringement.

Source: Dan Nguyen/YouTube

Imagine a politician involved in financial regulation, confusing “a bank” with “the economy”, then suggesting his daughter should be hired, because she’s such a “whizz kid” that she was able to spot an insurance scam.

8. ‘Whatever that is…’

John Roberts is the most important legal and judicial figure in the United States.

As Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, he makes monumentally important decisions about all aspects of society, crime, business, politics and daily life in America.

And that includes, of course, social media and the internet.

But in this 2011 Q & A, Roberts included this little nugget (Starting at 1:50)

Different members of the court are more adept at [social media] than others.

I don’t think any of us have a Facebook page, or tweet – whatever that is…


Source: C-SPAN/YouTube

9. ‘A particularly bad idea’

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been trying to implement a tax on internet use.

Insofar as it was thought through at all, it involves charging 50 cents per gigabyte of data transferred.

Thousands of outraged Hungarians have taken to the streets to protest, just this week, and on Tuesday, the EU called it “a particularly bad idea” that “won’t work.”

Check out Commission spokesperson Ryan Heath’s diplomatic – but devastatingly comprehensive – speech on the plan.

If you’ve ever wondered how EU bureaucrats say “This is the stupidest thing I’ve every heard” – this is it:

Source: EurActiv/YouTube

*Honourable mention

Whatever else you think about the Taoiseach, you have to hand it to him in this instance.

While on the campaign trail in 2011, the Fine Gael leader was caught on the spot by a mischievous journalist who asked him to explain cloud computing.

A worst nightmare for every politician touting the merits of “Digital Ireland” and showing off about their trip to Intel HQ.

In fairness to him, Enda did alright here:

Source: infomatique/YouTube

Read: Hungary is trying to tax internet use – Hungarians aren’t having it>

Celebrities who took nude photos are “dumb” – EU Commissioner>

About the author:

Dan MacGuill

Read next: