The Internet and democracy: a challenge

The New York Times’ Matt Bai had a mildly interesting piece in yesterday’s magazine section about how the dynamism of the Internet takes political campaigning out of the hands of the usual Washington pols. If you’ve been following discussions about the Internet and politics at any time over the last four years, everything in it would have been familiar. (The piece was also a not-so-thinly-disguised plug for Bai’s book on the same.) Yadda, yadda, yadda, as they say.

Much more interesting for me was a discussion I had in the rain last Thursday with Tom Steinberg, the head of  In that wonderfully English way, Tom and his various associates have, with chewing gum, spare balls of string (translation: virtually no money) and not a little programming intelligence created a truly pioneering set of sites that use new communication technologies to advance democracy. Ethan Zuckerman met Tom at an O’Reilly meeting over the weekend and produced an intelligent summary of how MySociety fits in the open democracy constellation.

In our soaking wet walk along Crissy Field, Tom raised a fascinating thought. An enormous amount of effort, he said, went into online campaigning. Comparatively little attention is being paid to how we can effectively use the Web and other media to create a more responsive democracy. Here’s the challenge Tom gave me: it’s November 5, 2008. Hillary/Obama/Edwards is the president-elect. She/he calls you and (à la Robert Redford in The Candidate) asks, “Now what do we do?” Not about policy, but about using the Internet for better democracy. There’s the most powerful office in the world backing you, resources are just about unconstrained. What do you ask for?

It’s worth a lot of thought. Check out the MySociety projects and the 10 Downing Street petition site (run by MySociety) for some ideas. I was embarrassed that I didn’t have a good answer for Tom. I intend to spend some time thinking of the right response for that call next November. Ideas?

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