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One Web Day DC 2008: E-Democracy and Information Policy, an Education and a Celebration

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WASHINGTON, September 22 – One Web Day, DC style: New York has a rally celebrating the Internet and its democratizing power, DC holds a panel session focused on the policies that could either expand the web as a democratizing force or stifle it.

Not that we don’t know how to celebrate in DC – the happy hour will be later this evening – but from 9 to 5 (or usually 10 to 6) it’s policy.

Sascha Meinrath welcomes the wonks and the media to One Web Day DC 2008 opening event at the New America Foundation’s headquarters and calls it a celebration of “one of the most important telecommunications innovations in history” and tells us that One Web Day (OWD) celebrations are going on all over the world at the same time.

The idea started and is still driven by Susan Crawford, who three years ago imagined a One Web Day that could at some point rival earth day.

“One Web Day may be in its infancy…but we can see the importance of Internet policy rising” in the national political landscape, Sascha says before introducing a key telecommunications policy maker, Jonathan Adelstein, from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Commissioner Adelstein follows his introduction with an introduction of his own, of Congresswoman Donna Edwards (D – Marylan, 4th congressional district).

Congresswoman Edwards is interested in how the internet can be an enabler for democratic engagement on the community level, but to start, she says, communities need access. Access to broadband is something Ms. Edwards sees lacking at the community level, even in her own houselhold.

“According to the broadband provider in my area, I can get service in the zip code I live in, and that’s true for houses just down the street from me, but at my house we can’t get broadband and are still on dial-up.” As a result, the Congresswoman has given up on utilizing the few hours of the day when’s she’s home to go online (“because it’s too much of a pain”) and she worries that students at the schools in her community are facing similar situations. “I think the Internet and access to the web is the future for the 21st Century and I connect that very closely to the future of the young people in the community.”

Ms. Edwards says she’s excited about the prospects for this digital future but also weary of the potential for some of the advantages broadband offers to be excluded. As her personal anecdote makes clear, exclusion is happening, even where we’d least expect it.

Returning to the podium, Mr. Adelstein, who was visibly frustrated by Ms. Edwards report that she does not have broadband at her home, follows-up on her inspirational speech with a focus on policy, beginning with the need for a national broadband strategy to “restore [the US] to its position as a global leader on technology.”

The elements of a national broadband strategy, according to Commissioner Adelstein, include an open and neutral internet and the goal of universal broadband penetration that facilitates empowerment.

Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation follows Mr. Adelstein and presents a good picture of the type of empowerment the web can deliver: Sunlight’s latest online transparency tool, publicmarkup.org, and One Web Day’s public mark-up release: “The Wall Street Bail-Out Bill,” open and exposed to users for discussion and comment.

Ellen highlights the power of the web as being particularly liberating, in that Sunlight has “liberated” countless documents and massive amounts of government information, but without the power of the web to publish, the information could never truly be liberated.

A prominent developer of the tools necessary for groups like Sunlight to liberate information and connect activists is John Wheeler of Democracy in Action. John introduces himself as one of the first staffers to have an email address on the Hill and talks about his difficulties in getting others in Congress to understand the power of the new medium in 1994.

“Today,” John says, “Congress is dealing with a flood of emails and I’m proud to be partly responsible for that flood.” For the rest of the online gadflies, Democracy in Action has put all the web tools for organizing and advocacy in one place at the Salsa Commons.

One group interested in utilizing John’s tools is Bread for the City, a grassroots organization with a mission of assisting those on the verge of homelessness. Bread in the City’s Greg Bloom gave the OWD audience a tour through his group’s weblog, Beyond Bread, and noted the challenge of connecting what organizers and advocates are doing at the offline grass roots level with the web community while remaining issue-focused.

Broadband Census’ own Drew Clark joins the panel and returns to Congresswoman Edwards’ eloquent opening remarks to highlight the importance of getting accurate data on broadband connectivity in order to better inform policy makers and ensure the technology’s expansion.

As a part of One Web Day, Drew (and everyone here at Broadband Census) is encouraging consumers to take the census and join in the effort to better inform consumers about their broadband service options. Much like Ellen Miller and the Sunlight Foundation, BroadbandCensus.com is an effort to enhance the transparency of publicly available information in the interest of a more engaged citizenry and more informed policy making.

“Broadband is too important,” according to Clark, and unless there is universal broadband, there will be a segment of people who are left out of a vital medium for commerce and conversation. “BroadbandCensus.com will be a place where you can find information on connectivity that is comprehensive, useful and reliable.”

Next up, Alec Ross, Barack Obama’s science adivisor reflected on the power of the Internet as an educational tool and an organizational tool and, most importantly, as a transformative personal tool.

“So much on the internet speaks to so many people directly,” Ross says, “it’s a very personal experience and one that allows people to find the information they want without the historical limitations of place and space.”

Mr. Ross believes Senator Obama’s experience as a community organizer has contributed to his acute unederstanding of the powers of this tool. He then laid out some of the principle policy goals of an Obama administration in regards to the Internet, including Universal Service Fund reform, spectrum reform, and the creation of a Chief Technologies Officer for the nation. He stressed that groups like the Sunlight Foundation would have a partner in the federal government in an Obama administration.

Wrapping up the One Web Day kick-off at New America Foundation, Nathaniel James, the Campaign Coordinator for the Media and Democracy Coalition and the lead organizer of DC’s One Web Day, drew attention to the local effort to create a Time Capsule for OWD. The goal of the Time Capsule, according to Nathaniel, will be to create “a living archive of where we were in terms of e-democracy up until One Web Day 2008.” At 5pm today, the site will be closed to further contributions (though comments will still be allowed) until One Web Day 2020, when the community will then undertake a critical re-evaluation of what has happened over the last 12 years.

Nathaniel sums up the objective of the Time Capsule: “we’ve outlined a trajectory today and we want to come back in 12 years and make sure that we’re following through on that trajectory.”

So that’s it for the live event, now it’s back to the online events of One Web Day and the DC crew will return at 6pm with a little less policy and a little more celebrating. Until then, try to be one of the last to leave your mark on the time capsule and remind yourself in 2020 what it was like today.

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