The Political Revolution That Almost Wasn't Digitized

The back fence, the town hall, suddenly took on a national perspective. A movement was born.

What Happens Now?

Many of this election cycle's most influential Internet-based campaign tools didn't exist in 2004. YouTube hadn't even been sketched on the back of a Silicon Valley happy-hour napkin. Facebook was merely a hip place that a handful of Ivy Leaguers thought they had to themselves. The blogosphere was in its infancy: Citizen journalism was pretty much limited to your neighbor cranking out a letter to the local paper, and the most prestigious thing attached to the name "Huffington" was Arianna herself. "Twitter" was what a bird did when it decided to put a bunch of "tweets" together in a single melodic line.

Yet, the seeds were planted then by Howard Dean's short-lived presidential campaign for the revolution that was soon to come.

So, yes, these are heady times; the demand for "Change!" has been asked and answered. Now what? It is not a throwaway question. The campaigns of both Barack Obama and John McCain leaned heavily on the 'Net, but the president-elect's message broke through and resonated with this new, online, politically motivated coalition.

Regardless of party affiliation, one cannot deny that the political atmosphere this year virtually crackled with an enthusiasm not seen during modern times.

So what should Washington's lawmakers and regulators learn from this Internet- driven election? And what would have this election looked like if regulators had taken the wrong path four years and squelched the digital political revolution in its infancy?

The most important lesson is to trust the Internet. The Internet is not a "problem to be solved" as lawmakers often view it. It is our most important and innovative tool for reinvigorating our democracy and returning power to the people.

Internet values -- openness, innovation and freedom -- are American values, and if lawmakers can resist the constant pressure to fool around with those values, the Internet will return the favor by doing its part to help advance a range of important societal goals.

I doubt there is a member of Congress elected this year who hasn't directly benefitted from the FEC's decision to allow political speech on the Internet to develop unfettered. This is surely a lesson from the past that should be carried forward: When Congress start to engage in policymaking involving the Internet it must start from that understanding.

When we treat the Internet as a problem and a danger, we get into trouble; yet, when we recognize the Internet as a problem solver, as an opportunity giver, we empower people to find innovative answers to tough problems.

There is a new political online coalition coming out of this election that found a way to smash the apathy and malaise of the general voting public and organize for change. I am counting on them to make sure the digital commons remains open, innovative and free and to join us in delivering this message to Capitol Hill.

Leslie Harris is president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

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