Digital Democracy is Not a Spectator Sport

Been reading a lot lately on one of my favorite topics: How to realize the democratic promise of the Internet.

You have to do more than vote periodically to call yourself a citizen. Especially true when it comes to the Internet, where no one really votes to decide on the critical issues.

That’s why the impending US Federal Communications Commission vote on net neutrality is so important — because we all had a role in moving the bureaucrats toward the right answer.

That’s not what I’m on about today, though. There’s a convergence of coincidences to tell you about.

Consent of the Networked

Sunday, I finished Consent of the Networked, Rebecca MacKinnon’s book from 2012 (and an update for the 2013 paperback edition) about the “worldwide struggle for Internet freedom.” MacKinnon is a former CNN correspondent in China that now manages Global Voices Online. This is a good, if occasionally dated, outline of the various battlegrounds facing human right activists when taking their struggles online.

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(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As is typical of these types of books, it closes out with a manifesto intended to describe the perfect online world. These are usually quite inspiring, but lacking in ways of getting from here to there. While I don’t agree with everything MacKinnon wrote in these pages, she does indeed realize that without a social movement, we won’t ever get her manifesto realized, or anyone else’s vision. Democracy isn’t a spectator sport.

(Something else I’m not on about today, but might be some other time: In a perfect world, the global Internet might be rightfully managed by a global organization that might have a name like the International Telecommunications Union. MacKinnon persuades me that in this world, that’s a really bad idea.)

MacKinnon proves her commitment to this principle (of action) by maintaining the book’s website consentofthenetworked.com, years after its publication. She blogs actively there, but more importantly she maintains a directory of digital democracy activist organizations on the Get Involved! tab of the site. I know it’s real and current because some of the listed organizations weren’t born yet when the paperback came out.

Building a Bottom-Up Internet Movement

Monday, I was going to begin working my way through the list to find places for information and the best places to channel my own energies, but then this piece on Medium showed up in my news feed. It’s called “Building an Internet Movement from the Bottom Up” by Tim Karr, one of the leaders of Free Press. Fabulous essay, with a couple of very important reminders:

It’s a fight not playing out between smartphone packing protesters and security forces, but among the Internet governance community — a globe-trotting tribe of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), international agencies, world leaders and corporate CEOs.

For as long as the World Wide Web has existed these groups have debated its control and administration. What rules should govern a network that transcends national boundaries to connect people everywhere?

It’s a discussion — replete with international agency acronyms and jargon (“multistakeholderism” anyone?) — that leaves the rest of us scratching our heads.

and there’s a new coalition of civil society organizations:

The coalition is organized on the belief that the Internet must evolve in the public interest with the full participation of the billions of Internet users who aren’t in the mix at Davos.

It plans to build a global network of grassroots groups that can better organize and amplify the concerns of those people often on the wrong side of the digital divide. The group plans also to convene the first Internet Social Forum later this year.

And hey, there’s going to be another manifesto developed! But not just out of a single mind, this will be (theoretically) the result of a crowdsourced process over the coming months. With a global coalition of organizations that (theoretically) will commit to realizing it.

I hope there’s some way for folks like me to get involved in this process, though. Seems focused (for now) on organizations.

Will follow this process closely. Let’s make it work!