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Clinton campaign e-mail use cited

An electronic mail industry newsletter has given an annual award to the Clinton/Gore Presidential Campaign for its effective use of the Presidential Campaign Information Service developed at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

The award, called the EMMSy (after TV's Emmy), is the only one in the industry based on votes by the peers of e-mail users and vendors, the newsletter's announcement said.

The multi-party non-partisan information service was initiated at the AI Lab in mid-October as an experiment to study how electronic mail and the INTERNET national computer network could disseminate full-text campaign information and facilitate informed public discussion.

The MIT system was developed by Eric Loeb, a PhD candidate in neuroscience, and John Mallery, a PhD candidate in political science and electrical engineering and computer science.

Although the newsletter, Electronic Mail and Micro Systems, saluted the Clinton-Gore campaign for making effective use of electronic mail, it omitted mention of the MIT system, which comprised a major element of campaign's use of e-mail.

Nor did it mention that the system was used by four other presidential campaigns-Bush, Perot, Marrou (Libertarian) and Hagelin (Natural Law).

Why didn't MIT get a mention? The newsletter's advertising firm said the reason was that the ballots distributed to the industry listed only the Clinton/Gore campaign, not the originators of the system the campaign was using.

Working under Clinton staffers George Stephanopolous and Jeff Eller, Jonathan (Jock) Gill of the presidential campaign directed the Clinton/Gore e-mail effort from Little Rock. MIT researchers involved in the project said Gill ran the "sneaker network" at Clinton/Gore headquarters, collecting campaign materials to transmit via the MIT system, and hand-carrying incoming suggestions and questions to relevant staffers.

Gill is now part of the Clinton administration, serving as a special assistant to the President directing electronic publishing and public access e-mail for the White House.

The MIT experiment was implemented on a combination of Lisp Machines and Sun workstations at the AI Lab under the auspices of Professor Patrick H. Winston, lab director. Contributing members of the AI lab included Howard Shrobe, Robert Thau, Paul Viola, Steve Gander, Bruce Walton, and Sundar Narasimhan. Symbolics, Inc., contributed some services, and Great Eastern Technologies, Inc. provided some memory boards for the server.

According to Professor Randall Davis, associate director of the AI Lab, public participation was open to anyone with network access.

"All they had to do was send electronic mail that was routed through a particular machine here at MIT. Building on a database of persistent objects and automatic processing of digital forms-invented in this experiment-the campaign server provided a number of services over e-mail. They included automatic subscription services to a range of campaign distribution or discussion lists, organized by party and by issue. For example, users could obtain direct feeds on Bush-foreign policy, Clinton-economics, Perot-volunteers. Users could also join volunteer groups, organized by state and region, to work on behalf of their favorite candidates."

With the e-mail-based infrastructure in place, the presidential campaigns could send out the full text of press releases, position papers and background reports to its mailing list of interested individuals. Users could also search text-bases of campaign documents to get only those issues of concern to them.

The system also had an automatic surveying facility: it sent out opinion survey forms and could automatically read and tally the results. The campaigns were impressed with the ability to distribute substantive information directly to a large segment of the public, effectively, instantly, verbatim and untouched by media interpretation, as well as the ability to get ideas, suggestions, and reactions from thousands of quite highly educated people scattered around the country, the AI team reported.

Mr. Gill's assignment at the White House, Professor Davis said, is "to work from the functionality of the campaign system, then produce the more ambitious technical reality that goes with his new title. Scaling up such a system for White House use will face substantial challenges," Davis said. For example, "How should electronic mailing be processed when potentially every citizen can submit their opinions?"

Professor Davis said the AI Lab is currently trying to bring together and coordinate a number of scholars and engineers from other universities and private companies to propose some initial designs and identify relevant experts who might assist in constructing the follow-on system.

A version of this article appeared in the March 3, 1993 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 37, Number 24).

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