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Editorial: How @Google And Friends Can Build Local Internet Power

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, March 26 2012

Poster from Google's Take Action page against SOPA/PIPA

"Our e-mail list had reached 13 million people. We had essentially created our own television network, only better…"
--David Plouffe, The Audacity to Win

~

Thank you for taking action!
Hi Micah
Last week you stood with millions of Americans to protect online freedom and innovation. Congress heard you, and delayed consideration of the PIPA and SOPA bills, which -- if enacted -- would censor the Web and impose harmful regulations on American businesses.

We hope that today you will join us in thanking your representatives for protecting the Internet.

And we want to thank you, again, for your actions last week. We are humbled that so many of you rallied around what we believe is the most transformative invention in history.

Until next time,
The Google team
--Email sent on Jan 24, 2012

Just over two months ago, somewhere around 10 million people emailed, called, faxed and otherwise cajoled their Members of Congress to express their opposition to the Stop Online Privacy (SOPA) and Protect IP (PIPA) Acts. An approximated 115,000 websites either went "dark" or joined the campaign in related ways, with Google, Wikipedia, Firefox, Wordpress, and Tumblr all playing leading roles. In two days, legislation that had been moving through Congress like a dose of salts was withdrawn from consideration, with dozens of Members suddenly announcing their opposition, including many who had originally supported the bills. The Internet had won, at least this once.

Now what? Here at Personal Democracy Media, we have a crazy idea that just might help ensure that the Internet keeps winning.

While policy experts like Yochai Benkler, Mike Masnick, Gigi Sohn and the other good folks at Public Knowledge are hard at work developing a pro-active agenda for the anti-SOPA movement, and emboldened activists like the good folks at the EFF, Demand Progress, Fight for the Future, Don't Censor the Net, Engine Advocacy, et al keep a sharp eye on related threats to the open internet like the ACTA treaty, we urgently need a conversation about one other huge piece of the puzzle: What's going to happen with all those email addresses Google and the other anti-SOPA groups collected from people who responded to their call to action on January 18th?

I've heard that of the seven million-plus emails that Google says were sent, anywhere between two and four million people clicked on the "keep me updated on Internet legislation and initiatives" box that was included with Google's anti-PIPA/SOPA petition page. But unlike the other organizations that also channeled emails to Members of Congress like EFF, which reportedly generated one million messages with the help of partners like Mozilla's Firefox, Google isn't an advocacy group. It's a business, albeit one with an unusual mission that often puts it on the side of the angels and the public interest.

So, what should happen to those emails?

I'd like to make a modest proposal. Whatever else Google may do with that list (such as emailing people directly when there's another urgent action needed), it should also give all the people who said they want to be kept "updated on Internet legislation and initiatives" an option to connect to each other locally, by congressional district. Why by congressional district, as opposed to town or neighborhood? Because that would scare the bejesus out of Members. Don't just do what every other e-group would do if they had the emails, which is to use the list to conduct virtual focus groups, A/B test action alerts, and raise money to keep themselves going. That approach, which has been perfected by MoveOn.org, certainly has merit. A lot of us are busy people, and serving us with timely and targeted calls to simple and effective actions like contacting Congress at moments of peak urgency, is the essence of modern online organizing.

But imagine how that power might be multiplied if we also had small groups of local activists in every Congressional district in America who were meeting periodically, keeping an eye on their representatives, and working to educate them and their neighbors on the reasons why we need a free and open Internet. (This could easily mesh with Code for America's great new call for local "brigades" of coders to band together around the places where they live.) A few hundred people banding together around this common cause could have a big impact on their Member's politics, as well as on other elected officials and local leaders. If you doubt that, consider the impact of the Tea Party, which at its heart is rooted in roughly 800 to a thousand local groups that are loosely affiliated under a common banner but exert substantial influence because they both meet face-to-face and network virtually (Read Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson's terrific new book on the Tea Party, which carefully validates this description).

What I'm proposing here is something similar. The SOPA/PIPA fight of January 18 was like a "Rick Santelli rant" moment; but instead of Fox News and a bunch of rightwing billionaires providing the extra organizing energy to push people into holding lots of local meetings, there's a different kind of broadcast network available for use, if only the powers-that-be decide to let it loose. That is, a couple of million people who said they want to be emailed about this issue.

How might this work? What's needed is a platform that is designed to connect people to each other by congressional district, that makes it easy for them to coordinate with each other. One such platform that could do the job is OpenCongress.org, which recently added group-formation to its suite of tools. A great virtue of using OpenCongress would be that the site also makes it really easy for users to research and track bills and Members, and to follow up with open letter-writing campaigns. The site was also a key hub for anti-SOPA/PIPA activism, providing a real-time nexus of information on where Members stood on the bills that was used all over the web. (Full disclosure: OpenCongress.org is a joint project of the Participatory Politics Foundation and the Sunlight Foundation, the latter of which I am a senior technology advisor to.)

Another potential partner is Meetup.com, the local meeting facilitator par-excellence, which has recently been experiencing an eye-popping surge in usage thanks to some smart improvements in how its platform takes advantage of social sharing. I've spoken to both David Moore of OpenCongress and Scott Heiferman of Meetup, and they'd be eager partners if Google wanted to play with them, though both platforms probably would need to do some fine-tuning of their landing pages to make this work well.

Ideally, Google wouldn't just send out an email to the two to four million people who it has permission to get back in touch with, offering them the opportunity to sign up for a local group hosted on OpenCongress or Meetup. This should include all of the other e-groups active on this issue. And besides, successful local meetings all require organizers. That's where groups like EFF, Fight for the Future, Demand Progress and Don't Censor the Internet could be deputized. These groups already have small paid staff, but let's be honest, their strength is mostly in policy research, legal advocacy and online organizing. None of them focuses on local field organizing because its expensive and up until now, there hasn't been an obvious local base to work with.

Google could change that by offering these groups a deal: we'll email our big list and give its members a push in the direction of connecting by congressional district if you tap first your super-volunteers to step in, wherever possible, to be local group organizers. That way someone can run the welcome wagon and make sure the first meeting of whomever signs up isn't just a random gathering of semi-strangers, but an effective beginning to a ongoing partnership. Because it has such a big list, Google could even ask the other e-groups to join in this email push by inviting their own members to join in locally, and it could sweeten the deal by telling them that it will also making its big list members aware of the opportunity to join these other groups' lists. And rather than operating under separate banners, imagine doing this all together under one unifying brand, say, the "Internet League"--a local federation of people interested in fighting for a free and open Internet.

Take a low-end estimate of what could happen: If just 20% of two million emails get opened and just 20% of those people click through and sign up, that's a local base of 80,000 people, or roughly 200 per congressional district. More likely that means some districts, the ones in major urban areas and on the coasts, will have a thousand or more sign-ups, and others might have as few as 40 or 50. But even these numbers are enough to get most Members of Congress to pay attention. Local "Internet Leagues" could also become hubs for all kinds of other generative activities, from speaking up at public meetings to hosting hackathons or training programs to help get internet access to less-connected constituencies.

Is this a crazy idea? I suppose it's almost as crazy as expecting David Plouffe to willingly devolve power to the Obama grass-roots after the victory in the 2008 presidential race. (And the Achilles heel of all current online email-based activism is that it seems to inevitably drive power upwards into the hands of an omniscient list-holder rather than out to the edges of a sentient network.) But I think Google might be different. While it has moved in all kinds of ways to develop a more traditional Washington lobbying operation (most recently hiring lobbyist and ex-GOP Rep. Susan Molinari to run its growing DC shop), the engineers in Mountain View still also believe in the power of open networks and platforms. And by the way, this decision could be affected by us, too, since we have the power to tell Google what we think it should do too.

So, if you agree that whatever else Google and all the other vital organizations that came together to stop SOPA/PIPA do in the coming months, they should take this idea seriously, here's what you can do to help:
1. Tweet at @google that you support the Internet League idea (hitting the Twitter icon below will auto-generate a tweet with this article attached).
2. Share this article widely.
3. And never forget what Margaret Mead said: "A small group of people can change the world, in fact, it's the only thing that ever has."

Update: In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that Google has been a sponsor of the annual Personal Democracy Forum conference since its founding in 2004.

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