F2C: Democracy, Politics, Internet

Alec Ross, Donna Edwards, Matt Stoller, moderated by Micah Sifry

Mica Sifry
We are living in amazing times, we have a new people-to-people system emerging, and all the things that have hit the commercial arena are now hitting the political arena. Want to look at how we can change governance, rather than how to change campaigns.

Sunlight Foundation starting new project, PublicMarkup.org, to let people on the web comment on legislation.

Alec Ross
Before we talk about the specifics of Obama’s proposals for transparency in government, we’ve seen candidates before propose things, and what’s more important than that is the attitude and mindset of the campaign. Obama hasn’t been in gov’t for decades and feels a close link to people outside the beltway, and knows that they are the ones that have valuable insight. Obama is fluent in technology but not a coder. What’s compelling for him is not tech, but what it can do. He didn’t start his campaign with an organisation or apparatus, nothing approaching the Clinton campaign, so had to figure out how to organise campaign very quickly. Had to figure out how to organise the reservoir of goodwill that was out there. Did it using tech.

Big chances Obama too last year where he got power by giving up power; used his website not just as a way to raise money from small donors but also as a way or organising the campaign. 100,000 offline events held because of stuff organised online. Principles around tech-based empowerment and openness have helped draw peop[le who are not normally part of the process into the process.

Obama gets it, he cares. Getting to the specifics, that’s where he’s been most bold. He has published detailed proposals which are at the bleeding edge of what’s acceptible in Washington. E.g. he said let’s take all government data and make it available in machin readable universially accessible format, so anyone can go and get it.

If you want to find out what pollutants are in your environment, Obama says if that content lives in Dept of Energy, should put it on the web, so you can put in your zip code and find out about your community. Level fo strust that he thinks gov’t needs to have so that citizens with information can make decisions in their own interest.

Also says, let’s take the communications from Congress and make it available to the public. A telecoms lobbyist, speculation at her relationship with McCain, you can assertain that what did happen that McCain sent letters to the five memebers of the FCC and he got one of her clients to get a media diversity waiver. So it’s not about the bheaviour, but let’s make it public and let the public make up their own minds. Let peopel organise around tissues as they see fit.

Detailed proposals for this. If Barack Obama president, there are a series of specific principles and ideas, lot of chattering about the “good luck implementing this stuff”. But that is a place where citizens themselves can take action.

Micah: Which is the hardest proposal?

Alec: Taking official communications between officials and making them public. The people who’s mail would be reaad would have to make that legislation. There’ll be opposition. Secondly making gov’t data available will be resisted over the cost.

Proposal for a government CTO. You can’t have a company in the US an not have a CTO. Our federal go\vt does not have a CTO so there are very basic things that aren’t happening, you get silos.

E.g. clean tech programmes that involved the Dept of Energy, Dept of Labour, Office for Sci and Tech Policy, there are no co-ordinating entities. Think about technology an FCC spectrum auction failed because gov’t didn’t play a co-ordinating role. People took for granted that there’d be leadership in the federal gov’t, but there’s no one to co-ordinate. So trying to create a level of organisation in the gov’t that doesn’t exist.

Matt Stoller: Am a blogger. Can we open up government is a question we’re addressing. Yes, we can, and it is happening. Question is what are the contours of what is happening. Doc Searls said, Can you fix congress the way you fix a dog? Congress is us, so if you’re angry at congress, how do we take responsibility to change that? That’s what we’re seeing over the last ten years or so. but we haven’t connected the organs of power to the public.

One blog encountered in 2005 was a blog in New Jersey, about very local issues. Was an argument about local swimming pool, and it being expensive because there were too many life guards, so parents argued with each other. Then the life guards came into the discussion and got offended. And that changed the dialogue, as the life guards had to defend what they do and parents had to understand what was going on. Took something implicit and made it explicit.

Legislation 2.0, to have a dialogue hosted by Senator Durban. Got an exciting discussion about internet policy, but it went nowhere. Didn’t turn into anything, didn’t generate any political mtion. Failed to connect that with political power; difficult to connect with real political power.

How do we create the bridging pieces.

Donna Edwards has had a long career in public advocacy. In early 90s working to lower prescription drug prices. Democrats didn’t want this in the bill, so Donna went to Seattle to editorialise against Senator Foley til he changed his mind. That’s a tough thing to do, but shows sympathy.

Donna Edwards: From a campaign perspective we really need to tool up what we are doing. Sometimes people don’t even know there’s an election on. Need to raise the discussion from the mire that it’s in. But step back from technology. Used to be a systems engineer for Lockheed working on Nasa programme. Things have changed a lot since then, but not all of our communities have been able to be a part of that change.

Where I live I have dial-up internet. Was at home last night, needed to work online, but couldn’t get on. Complete disaster. Reason I have dial-up is because Verizon says that they provide ‘broadband’,which is sort of true, except if you live 200 years away from where it’s routed. So really, they don’t provide service. Children in the community who maybe don’t have access to a computer at home, and who have to do research to keep up with their classes, have to go to the library to keep up with their coursework, etc. Think about many of our most vulnerable communities who lack the ability
to access the jobs and opportunities in the 21 century. This is shameful.

Look around the room, and you all look amazing, but you don’t look like those communities. If we leave out those people, they will just slip further and further behind.

For the campaign, we can use the internet to communicate, and it was amazingly helpful. But at the same time, some folks just need a bit of paper because they can’t get online. It seems extraordinary to be having this conversation now, but it’s reality. We were operating in two worlds, 21st C and 20th C, and that alone poses tremendous challenges.

Not at time in public policy anymore where we can hope that the tech community, the service providers, will do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. Those of us who can afford it and have capacity will have access, and those who can’t won’t because it’s not efficient for some companies to reach out to vulnerable communities.

When I go into congress, I’m not thinking about a tech policy for us, but how do we have a tech policy that works for our most vulnerable communities.

In the campaign, it was fun to use blogs, and it was fascinating. Did something on the Washington Post blog, and took a long time to answer a question and the WaPo chap chastised her for thinking for a long time about a question. Not sure that she wants to read everyone’s emails, but she does want to see policy stuff come out, meeting results. Legislators need to have contact with the community.

Importance of having open access to the internet. Want to decide for ourselves what is useful or appropriate, and don’t want someone else sorting through it for me. Worries about policies that encourage gatekeepers. We’ve had too many gatekeepers, and vibrancy of the internet means limiting the gatekeepers, and to trust that we are pretty smart people who can figure out a lot of things for ourselves.

Jim Baller
Recently wrote an article evaluating positions of candidates on broadband policy issues. All three have very positive positions on this. Obama has the most extensive and a complete statement of his principles on his website; Clinton in the middle; McCain hasn’t said much but what he has said is revealing.

McCain and John Chambers (Cisco CEO), were asked what Congress could do to improve innovation. Chambers said they need to cut the rhetoric, make broadband a priority in the US, establish a national broadband plan, change FCC definitions and measurement, US is falling behind and will continue to do so. McCain said “I agree with John.”

McCain was also an early and strong supporter of community broadband. Introduced legislation with Sen. Frank Lautenberg to prevent states from erecting barriers to public entry.

(Updated after clarification email from Jim which filled in the bits I’d missed when transcribing. Thanks Jim!)

Legislation 2.0, they wanted to continue the discussion on Red State, and it was a good decision, was a high quality discussion about broadband strategy. Republican activists were saying that gov’t investment made sense. Tremendous opportunity to have a bipartisan discussion on broadband. Not enough enough faith in the system, but there is something close to a national consensus.

Regarding transparency, there’s a strange coalition. FCC tried to mandate what bloggers could say about politics, and the bloggers rose up and swatted that down. Was an effort to put together a database of all gov’t contracts, and bloggers got together to find out who was blocking it and got the block lifted.

Trust is a big issue. Transparency can breed trust. Learnt that from software. Donna, you said you wanted to get rid of gatekeepers, and trust the people more, and the artificial gatekeepers are losing their jobs, yet you also said you weren’t so sure you wanted to put all this information out there. Question is, where do you draw the line? If you’re not doing it, it will be done to you, as we’re all watching, yet I’m sympathetic, sharing all the information about what you’re doing is giving your opponents an avenue to attack you. You’ve said you’re going to keep blogging, so where do you come down on this.

Donna: There’s a huge difference for an elected official publishing their schedule, and they should be doing that. Recently I was in Indianapolis, meeting with legislators, and a guy came up and introduced himself a lobbyist form the nuclear power industry, and said would like to give her campaign money. But she turned him down, if you want to have a meeting then can do that. He said they wanted to help, but she rejected it. But he didn’t understand why she didn’t want his money.

So if I put on “I met with a lobbyist with the nuclear industry”, you’d see that they didn’t give a campaign contribution.

What I means about email communications, I do not think that completely effective communications are made by email and it’s not a window into policy making. Value of seeing that isn’t there. Schedules, legislation, that’s very important for public engagement. But want the public engagement to have meaning and not be just about voyeurism.

Micah: What can we do about mass deliberation on a bill or policy. We delegate that and the process, most people would agree, is broken. So what would you do that would be different? The Obama campaign has mentioned wikis and blogs and other tools. But what would that look like in practice.

Alec: Campaigns can be more efficient and effective when online. But sometimes, tech tools are ways of keeping dialogue in a pen, and checking the box. But Obama, they are developing the policy and are drawing good ideas from the discussion. All depends on the attitude. Are you using them to really engage, or just checking a box. Not sure how to use them in government. It’s a question of attitude, not what’s the best wiki.

Donna: I’ve been connected with technology for 30 years, and technology is a tool, it’s not a substitute for an engagement. Are we a democracy or a republic? People are very distrustful of government and those they’ve elected, and rightly so. As a result, some of us are thinking of ways we can engage these tools because we just don’t trust the people we elect to be deliberative or helpful. Not sure it’s in our political or democratic best interest to foster that distrust.

Spend a lot of time in the community and talking to people, trying to figure out how to use technology to enable discussions and engagement. How can we engage with people who are otherwise very busy, but tech isn’t a substitute, and I fear we’re going down that track.

Matt: What’s left out of this discussion is power. There’s a reason that white guys are the ones to talk about this, and it has to do with power. Everyone in this room is empowered, I have the luxury to experiment with tools and tech. What gets left out is our obligation as the most empowered citizens in the most empowered country in the world. How are we going to devolve power to those who don’t have it. It’s not just about access, it’s about everything, literacy, nutrition, about an economy where 40% of the population have no credit. This all relates fundamentally to democracy. How do we change that.

Alec: Was a proposal made by Clinton, when she issued her national broadband policy, she created America Connects, and Public Knowledge did a piece examining the group behind it. And Clinton actually removed all references to it, and completely changed her broadband campaign. Not a gotcha, but this is a case where one person who had no power, took the time to put a very thoughtful investigative piece, and within two weeks it affected a candidates policy.

People have become very cynical about “If I engage, will it matter”? Tech has made it easier for people who aren’t in seats of power to exert power and make it matter.

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