Monday, October 21, 2013

Hacking Partisanship

Washington likes to talk bipartisanship.

 During the 16-day government shutdown, elected officials from both parties clogged the airwaves with rhetoric about crossing over, finding common cause with political foes and ending the standoff.

But sincerity was in short supply as few took real action, cheesy photo-ops notwithstanding. The agreement struck last Thursday night was more a delaying tactic than a genuine effort to resolve longstanding disputes.

This isn’t the first time reckless politics have ground Washington to a halt. Congress’ inability to agree on a budget mimics its recent failures to address climate change, income inequality and gun violence.

But there’s a new issue that seems to defy this pattern of dysfunction. It’s the subject of a hopeful new book, which documents the bipartisan (some would say “post-partisan”) organizing that in 2012 led to the defeat of two copyright bills that threatened the open Internet.

Hacking Politics: How Geeks, Progressives, the Tea Party, Gamers, Anarchists and Suits Teamed Up to Defeat SOPA and Save the Internet was edited by David Moon and David Segal of the progressive activism organization Demand Progress, and Patrick Ruffini of the right-leaning consultancy firm Engage.

It was also the brainchild of the late Aaron Swartz, the open culture and Internet freedom activist who took his life last January.

While progressive in orientation, Swartz disdained political labels, and party ideology never constrained his smart, radical way of thinking.

Swartz emailed Ruffini in November 2010 to ask whether he was interested in working together to fight an early iteration of SOPA, the “Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeit Act,” which powerful Hollywood lobbyists and their allies on both sides of the aisle were then pushing through the Senate.

“We’d love to do some work with the conservative/libertarian community,” Swartz wrote Ruffini. “It seems like they should be against this big government takeover of the Internet.”

“Working on this right now actually,” Ruffini emailed back. “What we’re hoping to do is provide a friendly spot for people on the right to engage on this issue.”

Counter Spin

A veteran of online organizing for conservative causes, Ruffini had come to appreciate the Internet’s potential for diverse and decentralized activism. He understood that advocacy on Internet freedom issues provided an opportunity to get beyond partisan politics and disrupt Washington’s status quo.

Joining right with left was “essential to building a broad, bipartisan, populist coalition aligned against an out-of-touch, lobbyist-driven elite,” Ruffini writes in Hacking Politics.

Many of the other contributors to the book echo Ruffini’s frustration with the squalid nature of Washington politics.

In a chapter on the earlier fight for Net Neutrality, Free Press Internet Campaign Director (and my colleague) Josh Levy describes industry lobbyists’ reaction to a 2006 coalition that had formed to support the open Internet.

The phone and cable lobby’s mission was to “drive a wedge into the nonpartisan coalition of Net Neutrality supporters, politicize the issue, further consolidate industry control over Internet access, and kill Net Neutrality before the public got a say,” writes Levy.

Their tactics involved investing in fake grassroots¬ — or “Astroturf” — operations that characterized Net Neutrality as a “Marxist plot,” in the words of then-Fox News host Glenn Beck, who joined the industry attack.

“Net Neutrality went from being a no-brainer to a supposedly partisan issue that divided left and right, progressive and conservative,” writes Levy.

Post Partisan Politics

But the industry spin against open Internet advocates didn’t stick. The campaign to protect the open Internet has always attracted strange political bedfellows who set aside partisan differences in defense of our rights to connect and communicate.

The recent fight against NSA surveillance has been led by the StopWatching.Us Coalition, which includes groups from across the political spectrum, many of which were involved in the earlier fights for Net Neutrality and against heavy-handed copyright legislation.

“I don’t know if there’s really a name for those moments where left and right ideologues can team up on an issue,” David Segal told me in an online interview. “And, importantly, we do so without ’compromise’, because on many of these issues, we actually agree with each other’s policy postures.

These alliances are more post-partisan than bipartisan in that they transcend party politics and are motivated by the desire to protect the freewheeling, open nature of the Internet.

The Network Effect

The Internet’s original architects designed a network where power resided not with a centralized switching authority but at the end points: with users who could shape their online experience without interference.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who later pioneered development of the World Wide Web, saw the network as a “blank canvas” upon which anyone could communicate and innovate.

These network-engineering principles have had far-reaching political implications, favoring systems that are more decentralized and democratic. But they are constantly under attack from corporations and governments colluding to alter the Internet’s basic DNA so the network tilts in their favor.

Because these attacks threaten free expression, access to information, openness, innovation and privacy, it’s not surprising that people of all political stripes have joined in their defense.

However important the SOPA victory was in 2012, its lasting significance depends on how well the diverse coalition holds together in these and other fights — and against business as usual in Washington.

It’s too early to tell whether these individual campaigns are part of a larger Internet freedom movement with lasting political power — but Hacking Politics offers a promising blueprint for breaking through the partisanship that has hobbled Washington.

And that’s a step in the right direction.

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