Monday, March 31, 2008

Politics, Democracy, and the Internet

This is a rough transcript of a panel discussion of sorts moderated by Micah Sifry, cofounder of the Personal Democracy Forum. Alec Ross is a tech policy advisor to Barack Obama's campaign. Matt Stoller is a political Net-roots activist and blogger for OpenLeft. And Donna Edwards is a candidate for Congress from Maryland. Any errors are my own. Amendments and corrections are welcome.

Micah Sifry: This is my third time here, speaking, and it's a thrill. David was the first person to invite me to a tech conference when I first got into this. I'm going to take a couple of minutes to introduce the session. Our topic is politics, democracy, and the Internet.

We are living in amazing times. We're still in a transition, but the old one-to-many system is being joined by a peer-to-peer, many-to-many, people-intensive system. It's not pretty, but these are exciting times for those of us who've been frustrated by how gridlocked our political system is.

I hope we spend most of our time looking at how we can change governance. That's the easy topic. The fun one is what happens when Net-centric thinking and policy enters the halls of power. We're going to start with Alec Ross, who's here in his capacity as an advisor to the Barack Obama campaign. He's going to talk a little bit about Obama's thinking about transparency. This does not imply an endorsement of any candidate, but the Obama campaign has some of the most interesting tech policy statements.

We're then going to segue to Matt Stoller and Donna Edwards. If the Obama tech policy is all about what we can do to change the executive branch, they'll dig into what we need to do to fix Congress.

I do a lot of work with the Sunlight Foundation. They're soft launching a new project today, We've drafted a detailed bill for transparency at all levels of government. You can read the draft bill, as well as comment and improve it. We're still lining up sponsors, so if you're interested in getting more involved, please talk to us. Why can more legislation be posted on the Web so people can get more involved?

Alec Ross: Before I talk about some of the specifics of Senator Obama's proposals in terms of transparency, it's important to consider the attitude and mindset of the candidate and the campaign.

The fact that Obama hasn't been in Washington for decades means that he feels more of a connection to people outside of the Beltway rather than within. The solutions to problems come from outside of Washington. What's become clear is not technology for technology's sake but how technology can play a unique role in connecting people to the process.

Obama's fluent in technology, but he's not a coder. When he started his campaign, he didn't have an organization or apparatus. He had to figure out how to organize his campaign very quickly. How he did it was using technology. It was a huge leap of faith.

Win or lose, one of the stories that will be told about this campaign will be about how he got power by giving up power. He used his Web site not as a way to raise money but to organize the campaign. Thousands of offline events have been held because of whats happening online.

The principles of using technology for openness have made themselves manifest in the campaign. He's brought a lot of people who aren't involved in the process into the process.

The specifics are where Obama's been most bold. Online, you'll see pretty deep proposals. Let's take all government data and make it accessible in machine-readable data. This is data you own and pay government agencies to figure out. If that content lives in the Department of Energy, let's put it on the Web so you can find out what the relative environmental safety in your community. Citizens with information can make decisions that are in their own self-interest.


When Barack Obama becomes president, people better be ready to get to work. We've shared some very specific ideas about implementing government transparency. We need to make sure congressmen are aware of those issues.

Sifry: Of those proposals, where do you expect the most resistance?

Ross: There are two. Making communications public. That basically means people getting their mail read. That will face some opposition. The other one is taking government data and making them machine readable so they're accessible. That can be done technologically, but people will ask whether we should spend tons of money to do so.

Our federal government does not have a chief technology officer. You get ridiculour siloing. Let's take clean technology. That would involve half a dozen government agencies. There's no coordinating body. There's a lack of coherence from the federal government.

Part of what the chief technology officer's role is to bring a level of organization to the federal government that doesn't currently exist. That requires a strong hand.

Matt Stoller: Can we open up government? Yes, we can, and yes, it's already happening. Politicians are getting more feedback than they've ever gotten before.

Congress is us. We elect these people to Congress. If we're so angry at these people, how do we take responsibility for that? We haven't connected the organs of the Internet to the organs of power. I want to share two stories about that. One is a success, and one is a failure.

I worked for John Corzine in New Jersey. I encountered one blog that was hyperlocal, why is the train so slow? There was an issue about why a local pool was so expensive, and one person said it was because there were too many lifeguards. People were debating that, and then the lifeguards got involved. It's really hard to be a lifeguard! That really changed the conversation. That's a success because it changed how people talk and relate to each other.

I was also involved in Legislation 2.0, which was hosted by a number of blogs, including my own. We had people discussing broadband policy. There were some really exciting people who came, but it went nowhere. It looked like we were really going to have a dialogue, but it didn't do anything. It didn't turn into new power for Senator Durbin. Somehow we failed to connect it to real political power.

How do you take social context and connect it to real political power? How do we create the bridging pieces? That's what I want to figure out.

Donna Edwards has a long career in public advocacy. She pairs toughness and sympathy. When she got elected to be the nominee for Maryland's fourth district, it was the first time the power of the Internet has been able to seat someone into an electoral position. At least we were one piece of that.

Donna Edwards: If I'm one of the most remarkable people Matt knows, he needs to expand his universe. I apologize for being late this morning. I might have to run in two more elections before I can run in the November election. I'm thinking about the Internet because we're going to have to toll up how we reach people online.

Sometimes, people don't even know an election is taking place. We were able to engineer a conversation about the race that was able to elevate it from the mire of all the other discussions.

Years ago, I was a systems engineer for Lockheed working on the space program. My job was developing and tested software and hardware. A lot has changed over time, but not a lot of communities have been able to be involved in that change.

Where I live, I have dial-up Internet service. Oh my god. Last night I was at home and I needed to do some work on the Internet. I couldn't get on, it was slow, and I just quit. The reason I have dial up is because Verizon says they provide broadband service. That's sort of true unless you live 200 yards away from where the service is routed. That's where my home is.

There are children who don't have access to a computer at home. Many of our most vulnerability communities lack the ability to jump into the technology age the way they should. That's shameful. Looking around this room, you don't look like some of those communities.

From a campaign perspective, what that means is that we can use the Internet to generate energy and communicate a vision for the future. At the same time, folks come up to me and say, please, can you just bring us a piece of paper? We can't get onto the Internet. That seems extraordinary.

We have to operate in two worlds, one in the 20th century and one in the 21st century. In terms of public policy, we're not at a time when we can hope that the technology service providers will just do right. We have to legislate and mandate that kind of stuff. Some of us will have access, and some won't because it's not efficient for those companies to reach out to those vulnerable communities.

How do we develop technology policy that works for our most vulnerable communities? Matt forced me sometimes to blog about the campaign. I was being interviewed by the Washington Post, and an editor asked me if I couldn't answer my questions more quickly. "You don't have to think about it so much." I thought thinking about my answers was a good thing.

We want to have the ability for legislators to have contact with a wide range of people, but I'm not sure I want to put all of that into email. I don't know if that's the best way to judge whether someone's engaged in effective policy making.

The importance of having the Internet and open access to the Internet is that I don't want anyone else deciding what's good for me. Let me add it. We have way too many gatekeepers. Our communities and the vibrancy of the Internet require us to limit and put a kibosh on the gatekeepers. We're pretty smart people.

Technology can work to build all of our communities. It can be useful for us without getting in the way. I'll be blogging when I'm in Congress, too.

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