Andrew Rasiej, founder of Personal Democracy Forum brought hundreds of people to New York University’s Skirball Center to discuss how the spread of technology is lowering the barrier of entry into participating in political conversations. The theme running throughout the conference was that global society is currently at an inflection point juxtaposing the past (using the Internet to enable one’s own causes) and the future (defending the cause of a free and open Internet).
“The cause has been growing, but now I think it has reached salience where it’s no longer being laughed at or ignored in Washington and elsewhere around the world,” explained Micah Sifry, co-founder of Personal Democracy Media, which puts on the Personal Democracy Forum event. “We’re at the point where the incumbent powers, whether it’s political, governmental, and authoritarian or military, are trying to put the genie back in the bottle.”
Many of the speakers talked about how the Internet is a fundamentally disruptive technology that enables more lateral connection at an extremely low cost. “This is disruptive to any kind of authority system,” added Sifry. “And whether it’s at the UN level or the state or corporate level, they want to try and contain it. I think many of us are aware of the danger that what we have now can be taken away. There are others who are just starting to wake up and realize that this is fragile and needs to be protected. So that’s the big point of why the theme this year is ‘the Internet’s new political power’ — it’s not a given that we’re going to have the Internet as a political power.”
Every year, the Personal Democracy Forum consists of a non-partisan community of people with views across the political spectrum, but who gather to discuss technology and enabling power in society, campaigns and elections, and democracy. For instance, while Sifry is more of an Independent and Andrew Rasiej, founder of Personal Democracy Media, is more of a Democrat, they both believe that there is an extremely large, nonpartisan community of people that believe that technology makes democracy stronger, and that the open Internet makes for a better economy and better democracy around the world.
“The idea is that the Internet should be open and available as a platform for free speech and that open democracy is not a left or right issue,” said Rasiej. “The most recent SOPA/PIPA battle indicated that the fight for the open internet is in fact a nonpartisan issue because both sides were working side by side. There are people who are politically identified with ideologies that are either left or right. But they put their ideologies aside when it comes to the open web. The open web is a nonpartisan issue – it’s sort of like asking the Republicans and the Democrats whether they believe in clean water.”
This year, one featured speaker was Marci Harris, the CEO of POPVOX, a company that simplifies communication with Congress on an open, trusted, and nonpartisan common ground. She told me she was at the conference because her company was all about helping people connect with the government in an effective way.
Marci talked to me about how she came up with the idea for POPVOX: “I was sitting at my desk in a congressional office, on the receiving end of all of the constituent communication that comes in. I was hearing amazing stories from constituents and meeting with them and thinking that I should not be the only one hearing this. When people actually take the time to contact Congress, some of them send in a form letter, but some come in and sit down and tell you the most heart wrenching stories you have ever heard. I thought to myself that I should not be the keeper of this information and that everyone who is trying to judge the merits of this proposal should hear what congress is hearing. So, I sat there for about three years with a list of all the things I thought somebody ought to do to make this happen, and everybody I talked to was like, ‘Yeah, good luck with that.’
Marci continued, “I hope that people take away from POPVOX the idea that Congress does care what constituents have to say, and that there are tools that empower that message to get in better than it has in the past. With the ability to measure and see what Congress is hearing, there are more tools now than ever to hold Congress accountable — and ultimately, it’s a good thing for us all.”
These comments by Marci Harris and her entrepreneurial spirit represent the ethos of the Personal Democracy Forum community that gathers every year in New York to discuss the future of the Internet and its diverse effects on communications and freedom.