Ronda Hauben on Fri, 20 May 2005 22:09:33 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> The Internet and Politics:Report on Personal Democracy Forum 2005

Here's an article I wrote about the personal democracy forum held in NYC
on Monday 5/16/05. The article is in OhmyNews. I thought folks on
nettime would find it of interest. I welcome comments and discussion on
the issues raised at the forum and in my report. Ronda

                Personal Democracy Forum in NYC May 16, 2005
                                 by Ronda Hauben
Published in OhmyNews 5/19/06


The question of how the Internet will impact politics is an important
question being raised in countries around the world. On May 16, 2005 the
Personal Democracy Forum held a conference at the City University of New
York (CUNY). The one day conference was a combination of talks on how
the Internet is being used in politics in the Republican and Democratic
parties and how blogs in particular are being used in political settings
such as labor unions.

Also there was a panel about the use of blogs in other countries
including Canada and Iran. Another issue that was the subject of a panel
was the fight to have local government provide wireless access to all
citizens in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

What follows are a few of what I found to be the highlights of the
conference and then some comments on the day's events.


First the highlights:

1) The opening session set the tone for the conference. It included a
talk by Andrew Rasiej who referred to the Howard Dean campaign for the
U.S. presidential nomination. "Dean had allowed the Net to lift him up,"
Rasiej proposed, "but the political establishment in America...still
doesn't understand the transformative power of the Net." Rasiej also
said, understandably, that he was critical of the focus on elections and
what the technology could do "for, or against, individual politicians."
This criticism may account for why an important question at the
intersection of US politics, the Internet and the media, was not on the
formal program of the conference. (1)

2) The program included an on stage interview with Andrew Stern, the
president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The SEIU
is a labor union for service workers in the public and private sectors.
SEIU is one of the labor unions in the US exploring how to use the
Internet. Stern has a blog "Unite to Win" where he and other labor union
officials post articles. A number of people comment, not only on what
has been posted by Stern, but also on numerous other issues.(2) For
example, there is a debate ongoing within the US labor movement over
whether labor union resources should be used to organize the unorganized
(Stern's position) or put toward electoral politics (the position of
John Sweeny, the President of the AFL-CIO). This is a narrow set of
choices, however, and doesn't necessarily include what members of labor
unions would see as the priority. The SEIU blog provides a place where
members can post their concerns, even if there is no response from those
who are in the leadership of either SEIU or the AFL-CIO. Most important,
members can post their concerns anonymously, even though some who post
on the blog may complain about anonymous postings. Following is an
excerpt from a post on the need for democratic processes and rights
within labor unions and some brief discussion on the issue of anonymous
posting. From the SEIU blog:

   "A question I have with respect to what SEIU is
    proposing with regard to its difference with the
    AFL-CIO is how the SEIU proposal affects and
    regards current union workers.

    I know of a situation in 1199/SEIU where union
    members don't have union meetings. The only
    meetings are the delegate meetings. The workers
    at the site are told if they file a grievance
    they will be fired. And there are clear examples
    that workers who file grievances are put into
    formal discipline.

    Does the SEIU's plan include any commitment on the
    part of the union to more democracy for
    members?...." (3)

In response to this post an 1199/SEIU organizer complained about the
fact that the union member was posting anonymously.

    "(....)By the way, open discussion and dialogue is a joke when
    you don't put your name to your claim. So don't respond
    anonymously."  Nick Allen, SEIU organizer

Another 1199/SEIU member responded that it was often necessary for a union
member to be able to post anonymously:

   "Those of us who aren't relentless brown-nosers and are willing to
    speak against corrupt and undemocratic bureaucrats face considerably
    more danger in stating our opinions than you do, Nick." Another 1199'er

When Stern was asked about the fact that people post their responses and
complaints on the blog. He responded that it was democracy to have
people post and to keep the posts online. In answer to a question about
how the narrow nature of the blog form makes it difficult to keep track
of the various issues introduced by those who respond, Stern said that
he was exploring how to have more of a discussion format.

As part of his presentation, Stern described earlier efforts of a local
labor union he headed to include in a contract the ability of each
member to purchase a computer for $100.

Also he explained that he didn't feel the prevalent practice of top down
unionism was appropriate for current times. He believed there had to be
change in the labor movement to meet the needs of our times.

While Stern expressed his views on needed changes to the labor movement,
one can't help wondering whether he recognizes the challenge to utilize
the Internet to hear from members of unions about what change they feel
is needed. Can he offer a discussion forum online and participate in it
so that he is in a conversation with the members and others who post. Is
there any way that there can be such an online conversation on the SEIU
web site, and a means for the conversation to influence the future
program of the SEIU?

The labor movement in the US is in serious trouble. It includes a
decreasing portion of the ranks of workers in the US. Also there are
serious complaints by workers who are in unions about the nature of the
democratic structures that the unions make available to the membership. 
In such a situation, there is a growing need for grassroots input into
the program and practices that the leaders advocate.

The discussion on the SEIU blog is not yet a means for the grassroots to
make this input, but some of the discussion on the blog provides insight
into the serious problems that exist in the US labor movement. Because
of the Internet and the online conversation it makes possible, it is
possible to broaden both the nature of the conversation and the numbers
of those from the ranks of the workers who will be welcomed into the
process. Can the SEIU leadership meet this challenge?

2) A presentation on Wireless Networking followed. The panel was titled
"The Promise of Municiple Broadband". Dianah Neff, the Chief Information
Officer of the City of Philadelphia spoke about the political problems
encountered in trying to provide wireless Internet access to citizens at
an affordable price.  She described a grassroots campaign conducted by
the city. Citizens were eager to support a municiple wifi project. Later
the grassroots process helped Philadelphia city officials to counter the
telephone company lobbyists' pressure on the State legislature to
require the local governments to wait until the telecos decide if they
wanted to provide a wireless network in a city. (See Daniel Rubin,
"Working without a wire.)(4)

Also on the panel, was Andrew Rasiej, who spoke about the need for the
city of New York to make affordable wireless Internet access available
to citizens. David Isenberg, who acted as moderator offered a rhyme to
sum up the panel:

      "Freedom to connect
       It's like any other right
       We'll have to fight for it
       Or they will come and take
          it away from us
       In the middle of the night"


A problem that surfaced at the conference was that there were statements
made by the panelists that merited discussion but there was little
opportunity for discussion from the audience, except for a few of the

For example, during the final panel on "The Future of Political Media",
a Republican Party consultant, Tucker Eskew, made a statement that he
advises his clients not to talk about Internet governance but to support
the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). This is
the private sector body that the US government is trying to develop for
its privatization plan for the ownership and control of the key
functions of the Internet's infrastructure.

How the international and public infrastructure of the Internet will be
managed in the future is currently the subject of a worldwide
controversy. This controversy is focused at the UN as part of the World
Summit on Information Society (WSIS).(See for example my article in
OhmyNews "Returning Internet Governance to the People [Essay] 'The
International Origins of the Internet and the Impact of this Framework
on Its Future')(5)

Instead of there being a way to educate people at the conference about
the nature of the controversy, Eskew's position on this controversal
issue was presented with no possibility of hearing alternative
viewpoints.  This helped to reveal that there was no place in the
conference program where the nature of the Internet's technology and the
vision that guided the Internet's earliest development could be
presented or discussed. Similarly, the conference program did not
include a way to explore the importance of an informed public of
netizens who will participate in learning about the issues involving the
Internet's continued development and participating in the conversation
and decisions to nourish this development,

The conference, however, did give a chance for staff people in the
Democratic and Republican Parties and others to come and network and
hear a bit about each other's practices.  But the broader question of
politics from the citizen's and netizen's point of view got lost in the
process. How the Internet will affect politics in the US is a question
that is grander than understanding how it will affect the practices of
the Democratic or Republican Parties. The conference also focused on
blogging and bloggers as the main aspect of using the Internet to impact
politics and journalism. This is also a narrow perspective. In
conversations with people outside of the panels and even occasionally in
comments from those on the panels themselves, there was the observation
that online conversation has an important impact on politics. Yet there
was no time during the conference to explore how newsgroups, mailing
lists and other forms of discussion forums can play a useful role in
political activity.

Also the example of how the Netizens movement in South Korea has been
impacting politics and journalism was not aformal part of any panel
discussions. The one mention of it from a panel denied that the Internet
was having an important impact in South Korean politics.

A conversation I had at the end of the conference helped me to
understand how the conference had been a success, but also what its
weakness had been. I spoke with someone who had been part of the Dean
campaign. He explained that the mainstream press had killed Dean's
candidacy for the Democratic Party nomination. That Dean didn't find a
way to counter the attacks by mainstream journalists.

I described the campaign by Roh Moo Hyun for the Presidency of South
Korea in 2002. Korean Netizens had created online fan clubs for Roh to
discuss what to do about the political problems in South Korea. They
created online forms like OhmyNews and utilized technologies like text
messaging. The Korean netizen movement had succeeded in making it
possible for Roh to win the Presidency.

Our discussion helped to show the need for an analysis of the Dean
campaign and for serious discussion about how to counter the weaknesses
revealed by the campaign. Is it possible to learn from the experience of
the Dean campaign in the US and the Roh campaign in South Korea to
understand what online forms can be helpful in a political campaign
challenging corporate and other forms of entrenched power?  The South
Korean experience helps to show the power of online conversation and
discussion in the development of the South Korean Netizens movement.(6)

A study of this movement shows the contribution of an online newspaper
like OhmyNews which invited participation from Korean netizens. It shows
the importance of welcoming participation from the netizen community but
also not requiring that they support all the actions of the candidate
but retain the ability to freely criticize the actions they disagree
with. For example, after Roh won the Presidency, the South Korean
government sent troops to Iraq. Members of the Roh fan club had an
online discussion about their opposition to this policy of Roh's
government and published a public statement expressing their opposition.
Such a practice is harder to imagine considering the political party
structure in the US.

The Personal Democracy Forum Conference helped to focus attention on the
US media, politics and the Internet. While there was no attention given
to examining the Dean candidacy and the lessons that need to be learned,
the conference did touch on issues related to this important question. A
panel debating this question could probably have helped to provide a
focus for other issues raised at the conference.  The fact that the
conference was held and that the question of the weaknesses in the Dean
campaign emerged in discussion after the conference shows that despite
many obstacles, under the surface, the Internet is having an impact on
politics even in the US.

Urls and Notes:






(6)I am working on a paper about the Netizen Movement in South Korea.
The paper is titled "Citizenship, Netizenship and Democracy: A Case
Study of the Netizens Movement in South Korea". I will be glad to make a
draft available for comments to those who are interested. Send email to

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