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Making the Internet Work for Democracy

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A level playing field for the Internet got a powerful boost last week. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev) threw his support firmly behind protection of net neutrality in any new Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decisions on regulation of the Internet. Senator Reid anticipates a fight. There's a lot of money and power at stake in how the Web will be defined and regulated in the coming months. Will the Internet become a private market for information access? Or, will it remain a globally linked and open public square?

No doubt, every member of Congress has noticed the popular level of interest about equal access to online communications. Over a million comments have flooded the FCC. Open Internet advocates are demanding that equal access be the guiding principle of any updated regulatory framework. The dual strategy of pressuring both Congress and the Executive Branch has worked. A rally of public interest voices has created the political space to engage with our government on policy. So now that we have the attention of people in power, how do we get the open Internet that we want?

Political space -- the time and interest of elected leaders -- is not guaranteed to last. We need to make the benefits of an Internet-connected society more visible and permanent. Claiming this influential political real estate means that we must build a broad and deep support system for leaders willing to move forward. Why? Because building expectations is one thing; creating a system that maintains and enforces the goal is another. Today's Congress has little capacity for technology policy in general. Our goal? Give Congress this capacity, starting with an open Internet.

Starting this week, Members of Congress are back home in their districts for more than a month. The August recess is a great time to show your support at home and demonstrate new networks of constituents who want a level playing field for Internet access. Remember, midterm elections are in November. Every member of the House and a third of the Senate is in campaign mode.

Here's something you can do: Throw a Maker Party!

Maker parties are easily organized community events that gather like-minded people to create and share the Web. This week, a group of public interest champions led by the Mozilla Foundation is bringing the world together to support an open and free Internet. You might know Mozilla from the top of your screen -- they created the open-source Firefox browser. You should also know that it is a values-based organization whose mission is to create a humane global community. The primary way they do this is by teaching and sharing web literacy skills to build bridges between our offline and online worlds. Mozilla Maker Parties are happening until mid-September (disclosure: I am currently working on a project for Mozilla).

The coalition of like-minded tech organizations (including Reddit) have made it easy for you. Here's a DIY kit for a teach-in on net neutrality -- sign up!

If you hold an event, make sure to invite local elected leaders. Here's some easy research to make this gathering attractive to your Member of Congress:

Find out who is already working in your neighborhood to create an open, democratic playing field for the web. Here's a map of public interest Internet projects broken down by congressional district. It includes libraries, public safety, educational and healthcare themed locations. Invite them! Don't forget to reach out to your local hackerspace.

Then go to www.house.gov and find your member. Scroll down for a clickable map. The Senate is here. What is her technology interest? Is he listed on the Golden Mouse awards? How did your member vote on privacy, intellectual property, cyber security? Is she a member of the new Congressional Maker Caucus? The Human Rights Commission? The Internet Caucus? Read a few committee oversight plans on your member's website. Where does technology show up in his oversight responsibilities?

Our open Internet constituency should inform members in ways that are useful for them in their roles inside of Congress (as issue advocates, party leaders, individuals with specific committee assignments, caucus members, etc.) As a former congressional staffer, I can tell you that constituents who build helpful relationships -- and who show up when you need them with well researched information -- have outsized influence.

If you get the chance for a "big picture" conversation with your elected leader, it is also important to point out how the United States, in order to remain a leading democracy, must demonstrate that Americans value the equal opportunity to connect online. We don't want to lose our chance to be an exemplary model for 21st-century democracy. After all, the point of having an open Internet is fundamentally democratic -- it ensures a community where any individual can make and share with anyone else.

Making and sharing a democratic Internet couldn't come at a better time. Our society needs to rebuild trust in shared purposes. The Internet was created by idealistic scientists and engineers. One dreamt, the other built. For the most part, there hasn't been a lot of room in the technology utopia for politicians, or for government. This has to change. The problems we are facing are systemic -- politics and government are unavoidable. Today, the right to be connected and to communicate must be understood as a requirement for social prosperity and safety, just like the interstate highway system was in the 1950s.

Keeping the Internet open and accessible will determine our capacity to be a representative democracy. The moment before us appears in the headlines as acronyms and bureaucratic rules but it really illustrates the difference between destiny and fate. You choose one, the other chooses you. We've just been handed an opportunity to participate in the future of democracy. Let's not pass it up.

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