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From Moment to Movement: ‘Not By Code Alone’

The arc of the Internet’s new political power is easy to trace.  Its genesis springs from an alphabet soup of acronyms like “SOPA” and “PIPA” while its adolescent star-power was shaped by a blitzkrieg political victory that caught everyone unaware.   Just how that power came to be and where it’s going is the focus of this year’s Personal Democracy Forum.

CDT President Leslie Harris gave the opening keynote in a speech that outlined a roadmap toward a sustainable future while addressing challenges with a clear-eyed assessment of the work to come.

Harris started with two quick points:  “Advocacy matters and has always mattered to an open Internet,” she said.  “We did not get the Internet we have today by code alone. [I]t takes more than a moment to make a movement.”  As an example, she pointed to a previous bright shining moment for Internet activism:  the defeat of the Communications Decency Act in 1996.  “It was a seminal moment… it did not launch a movement,” Harris said.

Although Congress continues to keep “reading from the same dog-eared script” that constrains its ability to comprehend the implications of this new movement, “[W]e, too, are just beginning to have a better understanding of the force we collectively unleashed,” Harris said.  “We are all frankly a bit hobbled by our own perspectives.”

Those participating in this new movement should view themselves like any innovative Internet start-up would, Harris said.  There is strength in melding skills and strategies, and trying out new partnerships, she said.  “Each new challenge offers us another beta to test and refine our strategy and move closer to the movement we aim to be.”

This new movement has “no choice” but to take on Congress in defense of the Internet, Harris said.  There is a steady stream of challenges already ahead:  data retention, surveillance technology mandates and possibly even the repeal of net neutrality, depending on the outcome of the election in November, she said. However, she cautioned the audience that this new movement must stay away from “nerd politics,” that too often hides behind an open disdain for traditional politics.  “We have to grab our passports, leave the comfort of the Republic of Nerdistan and seek to develop a more inclusive Internet politics,” she said.  “Can we use our Nerd skills to take on, disrupt and re-shape traditional politics and help empower ordinary people to reclaim our democracy? I think we can.”

This new movement must also look beyond purely U.S.-driven issues, Harris said.  The millions from around the world that helped defeat SOPA didn’t do it just to lend a helping hand, she said.  “They were fighting for their freedoms.”  Likewise, this new Internet power should get comfortable flexing its muscle in a global defense of Internet freedoms.

And there this is the matter of money.  “There simply needs to be more on the table,” Harris said, and from a diverse pool of sources.  “Please don’t force us to play the hunger games,” she said.  Those participating in growing this new movement need to be thought of as start-ups, just as all those building the next killer app or social media service are thought of, Harris said. That financial support is needed “to help nurture new online groups, give us all room to be more entrepreneurial, build new collaborations and yes, to occasionally fail,” she said.

“Internet advocacy matters,” Harris said.  “It protects what you do every day: innovate without permission. It deserves your support.”

[Below is a video of the keynote speech by Leslie Harris at this year’s Personal Democracy Forum.]