Mr. Smith Can Tweet from Washington

The Internet is changing our country by changing how we interact with our media and government, said speakers here at the Freedom To Connect conference on Tuesday.

“We’re talking about more than technology and politics here,” said Timothy Karr, campaign director for Free Press. “We’re talking about a movement.”

Karr defined three movements that are working together: the movements for media reform, free culture, and open government. Each has coalesced around a specific crisis and has survived to influence future policy decisions.

Karr said that the media reform movement was forged in the public battles over spectrum and then over battles on public access to private cable networks. The free culture movement is growing out of copyright battles in social media, such as Facebook and YouTube.

The open government movement was built on battles over the Freedom of Information Act. “The Obama administration seems thus far to be committed to opening up the White House to public scrutiny and feedback,” said Karr.

He asked for discussion on principles that all of the three movements would agree on and suggested: openness (a non-discriminatory Internet), transparency (making government information available to all citizens), innovation (copyright reform to foster new creativity), privacy (freedom from government spying), and access (to extend this new digital power to every American).

He then introduced Ellen Miller, co-founder and executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, to talk about the government reform movement. The mission is easy to describe. “We are committed to improving access to existing information by digitizing it and making it available on the Internet,” she said.

In 2006, she said, this was not a hot topic, but a group of people made a mashup of earmarks and uncovered a particularly interesting case: an earmark that benefited House member Charles Rangel (D-NY). A $400,000 grant to the “Congressional Glaucoma Foundation” paid the salaries of two people, a lobbyist and an employee of Rangel.

Last year, the campaign found that Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) had a secret hold on legislation that would improve government transparency that was sponsored by then-Senator Barrack Obama (D-IL) and Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK). Once this information was revealed, the legislation was passed.

More recently, she said, the foundation undertook a “Let Congress Tweet” campaign to allow members of Congress to use social media. The campaign was successful, and the Foundation has now rolled out its Capitol Tweets Widget that lets people follow tweets by members of Congress.

As for access, Roxane Googin, a financial consultant, said that there is hope as we move from “the priesthood of SONET” to more open packet switched Ethernet networks.

New networks allow people to choose where they get their information, speakers said. “Mass media are one-directional and gatekeeper controlled,” said Kerr. “With social media, we no longer passively consume media; we generate it.”

But many people are not yet able to access new media, the panel admitted. “Legacy media are buffeted by change,” said Kerr, “but many people still get their news from the TV.”

That will change at a faster rate over the coming years, as ever more people obtain Internet access, perhaps due to the $7.2 billion broadband stimulus. “The fault lines have been exposed,” said Kerr. “The policy decisions we make over the next two or three years will determine the shape of the Internet for years to come.”

The activists on the panel expressed optimism about their ability to influence the White House and pessimism about their ability to influence Congress. During the question and answer session, the Sunlight Foundation said that congressional Democrats and Republicans are “equal opportunity offenders” on technology policy, but that there’s been a big change in the White House.

“It’s a delight to be pushing on an open door,” she said, speaking about the Obama administration.

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