My Internet: Ryan Heath’s Politics, Policy, Politico Journey
My Internet is a series where DisCo discusses how movers and shakers use the internet for work, leisure and life in general.
Everyone who’s anyone in Brussels has woken up with Ryan. His daily Playbook sets the tone for discussion, clues people in to the big issues around town and has a delightful side order of snark. An email, it obviously wouldn’t exist without the internet, but Mr Heath’s enthusiasm for online disruption has been a leitmotif throughout his career, both as a journalist and a civil servant. Prior to his role at Politico, he was spokesman for EU Commissioner for the Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes, and before that, he used the Internet as an activist in Australian student politics.
After a cursory introduction to the internet — along with the CD version of Microsoft Encarta — in the computer room of his high school, he set up a Hotmail account, and, “by the time I arrived at university at 17, I was a fully-fledged little internet user.” As well as using it for academic assignments, he worked for the republican movement — the “no monarchy for Australia” one, not the GOP. That introduced him to Malcolm Turnbull, now Australia’s Prime Minister, but also an early backer of Ozemail, an ISP and the first Australian tech stock ever to list on the NASDAQ, in 1996.
“I remember him talking to me about the future of the world, and how it was going to be internet driven; this was in the beginning of 1998,” recalls Ryan. Travelling with Turnbull to promote the republican cause in Australia, they discussed email, the world wide web, and the possibilities for the future. “In the course of those train trips, we’d talk about the internet, so I was a convert from that point onwards.”
The joys of global connectivity became apparent when Heath wrote his first book, the diplomatically-titled “Please Just F*** Off It’s our Turn Now : Holding Baby Boomers to Account.” Although it deals with Australia, he mainly wrote it while in the UK working for as a civil servant during Tony Blair’s government. The accessibility of hardware hadn’t yet caught up: he recalls taking out a 3-year loan to buy the 12′ screen IBM ThinkPad he used to write it. And he also started thinking about the way governments use the internet, when he was sternly reprimanded for forwarding the invitation to his book launch from his work address and mentioning his day job on his website.
Next came the European Commission, and a role with Neelie Kroes. The outspoken Dutch Commissioner had a new portfolio after her putting her mark on the competition role with several high-profile cases, including those against against Microsoft. It was the era of internet 2.0: the way people used the web, email and messaging services was changing to include social sharing and easily-uploadable images. “The internet became my daily policy existence,” Heath recalls. “I wasn’t just using it, I was advocating for it.” That included broadband access targets for the whole EU, ending mobile roaming charges and, after various twists and turns, rules on net neutrality.
As well as a serious regulatory agenda, there was a lighter side to Commissioner Kroes’ online presence. She soon built up tens of thousands of Twitter followers — more than her boss, Jose Manuel Barroso. “It was a very good platform for allowing people to see her authentic personality — it only worked because she was very involved with it,” says Ryan. “She definitely directed the show, even if she wasn’t literally typing out the Tweets.” In a Twitter Q&A about serious policy matters, she broke with protocol to send a cheeky reply about wearing “Chanel number 5 and nothing else.” It was a more lighthearted time, and a fun way to build a politician’s online brand.
Her team also used the disruptive powers of the internet to weigh in on issues like the Brussels Uber ban, which she responded to on her blog. In April 2014, the Brussels Commercial Court ruled UberPOP drivers would be liable for a EUR 10,000 fine for picking up passengers. “I think if we had sat there and drafted an article it would have had five different lawyers’ fingerprints on it and the language would have got toned down,” he admits. The Brussels court decision “was very dramatic and needed to be met with a dramatic response.” The whole conversation about Uber, Brussels taxis and regulation changed, because “we used the rapid, immediate, direct publishing ability of the internet to just throw the ideas out there,” he claims. Getting things out with “no filter” can also shake up policymakers’ thinking — and outspoken language never does any harm when it comes to getting journalists’ attention. (Disclosure: I covered a lot of this while working in Brussels, before becoming a friend, and later briefly a housemate, of Ryan’s)
Now at Playbook, he makes full use of social media, Facebook Live, Periscope and all the toys of the internet… to create an old-school daily email newsletter. “What is interesting about Playbook is that it’s pretty low-tech, there’s no bells and whistles for their own sake,” he explains, in line with the Washington version. It has to work on every screen, on every device, and convey information as quickly and concisely as possible. “It’s really audience-driven, how do you get people involved in the conversation” explains Ryan, with 80% of content being sought out by Ryan and his colleagues, and 20% coming from tip-offs. “It could not happen on an analogue basis — or if it did it would be weekly.”
In terms of getting online, he’s very firmly in the Mac camp, using an iPhone 6s Plus, and a MacBook Air. His indispensable apps are Reuters, AP, the New York Times and, of course, Politico for news. For getting around Brussels — as well as Uber, which offers UberX and UberBlack — he uses Google Maps. He’s also a recent convert to CityMapper, which wraps in timetable data from STIB, the city’s public transport network.
Ryan’s former boss was right: the internet did change everything. We did this interview via Skype with me in London and him at the Republican convention in the United States. Political conversations from across the spectrum now take place online. Twitter, Facebook and other forums are deeply influential: they can also become echo chambers, as the Wall Street Journal’s “Blue Feed, Red Feed” graphic shows. In Playbook readers get their fix of hard news, Brussels beltway and frivolous gossip every day — alongside a printed weekly newspaper. With 2016 one long political upheaval so far, it’ll be fascinating to see what comes next.