One Web Day: Online Participation in Democracy

This year’s theme for One Web Day, September 22nd, is Online Participation in Democracy.  The Web is an incredibly valuable resource.  Like water, many of us think of Internet as a tap that we turn on (or that is always on) and that we can draw from and contribute to whenever we want. But in many places in the world, this tap has a lock and key on it. This gives us even more reasons to appreciate the Web on One Web Day, and to think about the things that are made possible because the web is here, enabling us to have discussions.
Citizens can’t participate online unless they have access to a net that is free of censorship and open for sharing and debating ideas. Also, they must have the skills and literacy to understand and get involved.
In Burma, there’s military rule, and fighting -and escapes to freedom- have displaced many citizens. Some of them still hope for a return to democracy, but being spread across the boarders of neighboring countries, as well as scattered in Europe and the US, it’s tough for them to have the discussion about what they wish their society could be.  As Mark Belinsky, Co-Founder of Democracy without Boarders told me:

“This is the first time we have an ability to have Democracy in the way we define it. In Burma there’s no opportunity for democratic interactions outside of the web – particularly because there are so many people outside of the boarders. This effort allows people who are outside the country to build what their future country will look like.”

Here in the US citizens have the right to vote, but many are not even registered. Groups like the Nonprofit Voter Education Network use the web to encourage members of non-profits to vote, and to vote based on the causes their groups advocate. WEtv (disclosure, a client of mine) is educating and empowering women to register to vote via their site.  And this year we’ve all seen the incredible rise of citizens as campaign contributors, both for the Democrats and Republicans, online. People can amplify their political views via their social networks. Blogs enable debate of ideas.
Sometimes, the sources of these ideas may be suspect. People say “We can’t believe everything we learn online.” They have to be able to apply critical thinking and teach the people who may be less tech savvy about how to evaluate sources of information. I passionately believe that there’s a need to teach this new literacy to students and others that are new to the net, or who want to learn (and have proposed this topic as a panel at the SXSW conference next March). As content moves online, there is a need to teach the skills that enable citizens to make decisions about what sources of information they can trust.

Who the heck are you to be an ambassador?
I’m honored to be the One Web Day Ambassador for today. It is funny, though, that I’m branded as an ambassador for a day – when I’ve been a Web ambassador since early 1994. I first saw the Mosaic browser in 1993, at JPMorgan, on a Sun Workstation. There wasn’t much to see, except for that “Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle” (Yahoo) site that told you the places you could go.  But, oh the places you could go! (And you could create your own places too!)  I immediately became a Web advocate and in 1994 I started the first Web User Group in America,  As a member of the Internet Explorer 4 evangelism team in 1997, I helped other companies get their web presences on line.

I remember the early discussions, back in 2006, when Susan Crawford introduced me to the concept of One Web Day, and I knew this was going to be important. I’m happy and proud to be included in this effort to promote One Web Day on September 22nd. I hope you’ll join me in New York at Washington Square or at an event near you, to celebrate the Internet as an important resource that helps keep us free.