The Political Revolution That Almost Wasn't Digitized

How did the digital political revolution almost get derailed?

Nov. 26, 2008— -- During this election cycle, the political process finally found the digital alchemy that married impact activism with Internet innovation. We've seen "Citizen 2.0" take "Web 2.0" and fashion "Election 2.0" into an engine of personal democracy; this revolution wasn't televised, it was digitized. And it almost didn't happen.

Just four years ago, a federal court ordered the Federal Election Commission to write a new set of rules addressing political activity in cyberspace. The 2004 presidential election cycle saw a flourishing of online political activities, and the commission had no guidelines on how to treat such activity vis-à-vis campaign finance rules.

Some lawmakers and advocates clamored for rules to govern online political speech, and a court in Washington backed them up, requiring the FEC to move forward with a notice of proposed rulemaking to impose campaign finance rules on the Internet.

In a first draft written by FEC staff, the agency started down a problematic path by suggesting a host of rules that would have subjected even the most banal online political speech to a myriad of campaign finance reporting and federal recordkeeping.

Every link from a citizen's own site Web site to that of a candidate would have triggered potential campaign finance regulations and swept many bloggers into the purview of the law. Ordinary citizens might have been compelled to consult lawyers before they engaged in online political activity.

The situation prompted a stark question: Would the Internet be allowed to foster a new era of citizen political activity through openness and innovation, or would it be turned into a chilling regulatory minefield, subject to arcane and ill-fitting finance laws?

The Internet's Political Tipping Point

Flexing its newly found online political muscle, the blogosphere came alive and a coalition was formed using the Internet as an organizing tool. My organization, the Center for Democracy and Technology, helped lead an online campaign that urged the FEC to protect individuals' online political speech from burdensome regulation.

Although we sought to protect blogs as much as possible, we also reached farther to protect all political speech by individuals, whether in blogs, video, e-mail or any other electronic form. The FEC paid attention and backed away from harsh mandates in favor of narrow rules that left most citizen-initiated online political activities open, innovative and free from regulation.

This was the Internet's political tipping point. An empowered citizenry created a critical mass of like-minded supporters nearly overnight and turned it into an organizing and fundraising Goliath, capable of capturing multimillions of dollars via donations of less than a $100 a pop.

After years of the FEC and some reform-minded lawmakers trying to control the influence of so-called big money in politics through regulation, the Internet provided the path to a new politics where the money, views and influence of ordinary people took precedence over the views of high-dollar donors.

Political neophytes muscled up and drove this election season in unheard of ways. There is little doubt that the robust online political activity that has ensued since the FEC's decision inspired Internet users and infused them with a sense of empowerment, it was an empowerment born not of political party or ideological rhetoric, but good ol' "get out the vote" person-to-person networking.

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.