Sometimes it's easy to take the Internet and the Web for granted, but in 2008, the growing number of Americans actively participating in democracy through the Internet is making headlines. The presidential campaigns have invited unprecedented amounts of input from voters who can volunteer or contribute online, and public advocacy groups are leveraging the power of the Web to provide fresh information, organize voters and make sure more voices get heard in our local and national elections. To bring attention to this new chapter in the history of democracy, activists, academics and entrepreneurs around the globe are celebrating OneWebDay on September 22nd, 2008.
It's no coincidence that the theme of this year's OneWebDay is online democratic participation. Organizers hope that here in the United States, after an election season that has seen so many people get involved in the political process, that those citizens stay tuned in and realize their next job is to support the infrastructure that made their participation possible. Because four years from now, it may not be as cheap or easy or fast or safe for Americans to do what they did this year unless they make the Internet itself a political issue.
As the late, great communications scholar James Carey noted, every new electronic communication technology since telegraphy has brought with it rhetorical promises of a better, more democratic tomorrow. In this regard, the Internet is nothing new. But it isn't magnets, radio transmitters, silicon circuitry, or fiber networks that deliver democracy. If you want democratic media, you'd better fight for democratic media. Otherwise, you get stuck with 24 hour celebrity infotainment and an endless parade of home shopping extravaganzas.
More and more, governments are selling off vital public infrastructures to the highest bidders, and the Internet that travels over phone and cable lines and the airwaves is sitting on the auction block. Combined with the well-known problems of a growing digital divide and commercial surveillance of users, the greatest engine of free speech and democratic outreach the world has ever seen is being swiftly co-opted for the sake of profit. Important decisions are being made every day, and most of us have not been invited to the table.
Recognizing that the Internet is as vital to our civic health as the natural environment is to our physical health, cyberlaw scholar and ICANN board member Susan Crawford founded OneWebDay, taking Earth Day as her model. Back in 1969, unable to move his Washington colleagues to act on behalf of a deteriorating environment, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson turned to the people. Nelson later wrote that the remarkable thing about Earth Day is that it organized itself. What started as a series of local teach-ins grew into a global public education event that touched thousands every year and laid the foundation for the mainstreaming of environmental action and concern.
Getting involved as a steward of the Internet is what OneWebDay is about. It can be as small as choosing a browser that conforms to the standards web developers use, or learning about the current debates over network neutrality and TV white spaces. Any individual can contribute to Wikipedia, or post their Internet stories at OneWebDay.org. Web users who want to find like-minded neighbors can locate nearby activities through the website, or organize their own. There you will meet people working with nonprofits and government agencies to protect our virtual public commons and bring its benefits to more citizens every day.
Here in the U.S., two days of workshops, tech demos, and rallies will be held in New York City; a concert in Chicago billed as Rock the Net will educate music fans; and a day of community service will be held in the San Francisco, where refurbished city computers will be installed to create tech centers in low-income housing. The Washington, D.C. OneWebDay team launched an e-Democracy Time Capsule that anyone can contribute to before it "closes" on OneWebDay, when leading elected officials, policymakers, advocates, and Web practitioners will hold a public forum on online political participation.
We are learning to protect our precious planet by consuming more carefully, treading more lightly, and asking our elected representatives to support the cause. It's time to organize the leadership and will we need to collectively shape an Internet future that benefits all.