Minneapolis: Something's Happening Here

06/13/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Craig Aaron President and CEO, Free Press and the Free Press Action Fund

Here in Minneapolis, it's hard to avoid the presidential race. Tuesday, Barack Obama claimed the Democratic nomination before an immense crowd here. In a few months, John McCain will take to the same stage to accept the Republican nod.

This could be the first presidential election where the Internet is an issue.

I don't mean using the Internet as a political tool for raising money, organizing volunteers, or for candidates to send campaign spam. That's old news.

I mean this is an election where the Internet itself will be a bona fide political issue -- one that brings voters to the polls and determines how they'll cast their votes. And that's a good thing, because whoever's sitting in the Oval Office next is going to make the fundamental decisions that will determine what the future of the Internet looks like.

There's a lot at stake. Whoever the next president is will decide whether we have Net Neutrality, the fundamental principle that has always kept the Internet open and free of discrimination.

He is going to decide whether the United States will pursue policies to catch up to the rest of the world in broadband penetration (we're now 15th). He's going to decide whether we use the public airwaves to close the digital divide. And, maybe most importantly, he's going to select or appoint the people who are going to carry out -- or impede -- the goal of making universal, affordable Internet access a reality.

The next president, Republican or Democrat, will make all these decisions. But he won't do it in a vacuum.

For a long time -- far too long, from my perspective -- crucial decisions like these have been made behind closed doors by high-priced lobbyists and often corrupted politicians. The public was shut out.

But now, thanks in many ways to the open Internet itself, that's starting to change. There's a growing movement to transform the way we make media and technology policies and to make sure the public -- you know, the people who actually use the Internet -- has a seat at the table.

You can see evidence of this transformation in the ongoing fight over Net Neutrality; in the outrage over companies like Comcast and Verizon blocking file-sharing and text-messages; in the user-generated backlash against privacy violations on sites like Facebook .

It's these efforts by bloggers and YouTubers and old-fashioned grassroots activists that are making Internet issues a part of this presidential race. And ultimately, it's their success -- and not just the vote in November -- that will decide whether we have the Internet we should.

This brings me to another event, also happening in Minneapolis. This coming weekend, June 6-8, nearly 4,000 people from all walks of life and across the country are converging here for the National Conference for Media Reform.

The Internet will be a hot topic. There will be talk about building a ubiquitous, mobile Web, about technology policy, and how cellphones are being used in politics. Luminaries like Lawrence Lessig, Tim Wu, and Craig Newmark of fame will speak (not to mention a certain Arianna Huffington). But we'll also hear from amazing activists who don't get profiled in Wired. Like the folks from New York's People's Production House, who will explain Internet policy using cardboard, crayons, and candy.

Tune in online, and you'll hear a lot of things that you don't often find at industry confabs or consumer gadget shows. Words like democracy ... and activist ... and movement.

That last one is important. There is a political movement growing to reform our media and transform our democracy. In any important social movement, there will be tipping points or critical junctures, where the decisive action of a few can change everything. Think sit-down strikes or Rosa Parks on the bus, or Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign. Often the impact of these moments is only clear in hindsight.

Could a conference in Minneapolis represent such a moment? Don't miss your chance to find out.

A version of this post originally appeared on Internet Evolution.