Sunlight Foundation event on MLK, Jr., Day at HLS

The Sunlight Foundation has kindly chosen the Berkman Center at HLS as the venue for an all-day session today, “Political Information in an Internet Era.” We’re grateful to a dedicated group of civic activists who join us today on their holiday.

The frame for the event, as Zephyr Teachout and her team put it, is this: “All of us, in different ways, are trying to use the internet to improve citizen’s access to, and use of, important political information. Since so much political information is tied to local politics and local media, we are focused on the people working at the state level to educate and engage citizens in public affairs – using everything from new tools to new techniques to new voices on simple blogs.

“Our goal is to help those who are on the ground, using the web to improve political information on the local level. We also hope to foster connections that last beyond this meeting.”

Ellen Miller, Micah Sifry and Mike Klein came to Berkman last year at the time of the kick-off of the Sunlight Foundation. We were blown away then and we are blown away now by what they are up to. They’ve been congratulated many times on the extraordinary and fast progress they’ve made over the past several months, but it’s worth echoing here again.

One of the primary questions that the Sunlight Foundation’s work raises, and the subject of this meeting, is one that is core also to the work of the Berkman Center. Are people using Internet in a way that improves politics? Put another way, are people using Internet in a manner that strengthens democracies? The answer lies in the distributed group of people, some right here in this room today, and in other rooms like it around the world. The answer is that it’s “you.” Time Magazine got it right.

But there’s a ton of work still to be done.  For those on the contemplative end of the scale, there are also a lot of puzzles to be worked out. Three things on my mind by way of issues that one might consider in the context of this big topic:

– At the pre-meeting dinner last night, it was plain that the prevailing views on politics in America among people in the room ran a pretty short gamut, from skepticism and cynicism. As one shines more light on more injustices — on more corruption, to use a word in Z’s agenda — is there a way to calibrate the impact of this sunlight? Is there a realistic fear that more sunlight may lead not to more civic engagement, but rather lead to pushing more people from skepticism to cynicism? The answer, of course, is not less sunlight. But the question seems to me a genuine puzzle.

– The Sunlight Foundation’s project, and the projects of many of the participants in the room today, are focused on the United States. No doubt the United States, and our disparate local and state parts, need the help and the focus. All the same: how do we act locally when we know the issues we are tackling and the network we are using are global? How do we inform ourselves, share our work, learn from others, connect to others — in such a way that we are truly acting within a global framework?

– One of the cool things — perhaps even approaching a “truth” — about Internet & politics is the extent to which it’s both essentially about the individual (in Benkler’s terms, “autonomy”, for those who have read the extraordinary Wealth of Networks) and about collective action. There’s a beauty to that tension, and also a challenge, to each of us, whether as individuals and as members of a collective. What is our greatest point of leverage, as individuals — limited in our political activism only by our own imagination and the 24 hours in a day? Again, I think so many people running so many extraordinary projects related to Internet & politics are answering that question by how you spend each and every day — and the rest of us can learn a thing or two from that.

Lessig: What YouTube teaches us about Net Neutrality

Lawrence Lessig has an op-ed in the FT today. He uses the YouTube story to make utterly plain why we should care about the outcome of the Net Neutrality debate — competition, access, innovation, creativity, just for starters. He writes:

“YouTube could beat Google because the internet provided a level playing field. The owners of pipes delivering video content to users on the internet did not prefer one service over the other. The owners of pipes simply passed the packets of data to users as the users chose. No doubt Google and YouTube worked to make that content flow as fast as possible by buying caching servers and fast connections. But once it was on the internet, the network owner showed no preference, serving each competitor equally.

“Network owners now want to change this by charging companies different rates to get access to a “premium” internet. YouTube, or, would have to pay a special fee for their content to flow efficiently to customers. If they do not pay this special fee, their content would be relegated to the “public” internet – a slower and less reliable network. The network owners would begin to pick which content (and, in principle, applications) would flow quickly and which would not.

“If America lived in a world of real competition among broadband providers, there would be little reason to worry about such deals. But it does not live in that world. …” Read on!