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Democracy and Technology in DC

I’m at the United States Chamber of Commerce at a half-day conference titled “Expanding and Strengthening Democracy – the Role of Technology“. It’s a pleasant surprise to discover that DC has finally come around to being blogger-friendly at events like this one – there’s open wifi in the room, and our host announced that there’s a tag – – for posts about the conference. None posted so far, as of two hours into the event…

The event is jointly run by NDI (the National Democratic Institute) and IRI (the International Republican Institute), two party-related organizations which work on pro-democracy activities around the world. In the Washington spirit, each panel is carefully balanced to include an equal number of speakers invited by the Dems and by the Republicans. (It will come as no surprise to you that I was invited by NDI, not IRI…)

Congresswoman Anna Eshoo (D-California) led the program with an argument that the rise of new media is a democratizing force analagous in power to Gutenberg’s printing press. She quotes Jefferson: “…were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” She notes that the newspapers of today are blogs, and suggests that Thomas Paine would not have been a pamphleteer, but would have posted at commonsense.com.

(It’s a great line, but I’m guessing she hasn’t taken a close look at commonsense.com – it’s a site for “family friendly” media reviews, which tells you whether or not a program is appropriate for your kids…)

Providing balance from the right, Jim Kolbe (R-Arizona) talks about the power of cellphones in enabling election monitoring as well as mobilizing voters. But he offers the reminder that this technology is a double-edged sword, telling us about visiting rebel groups in northern Darfur and having meetings interrupted by the din of cellphone and satellite phones ringing.

My copanelists on the “Empowering Citizens: Fast and Easy Communications” panel have a variety of exciting projects that showcase one aspect or another of inexpensive information technology. Julia Cohen from Voxiva (disclosure: I’m an investor) talks about the power of mobile phones in fighting crime. Using a mobile phone network, a special number to report crimes and technology to map crime reports and response, the Miraflores municipality of Lima, Peru was able to improve public safety and increase government accountability.

Mike Connell, a new media consultant, talked about an SMS-based effort in Slovenia in 2000 to bring voters to the polls. And Tian Chua, a labor activist in Malaysia offered a brief history of technology and social change in Asia, from the role of fax machines in bringing down the Marcos dictatorship, to web-based magazines and their role in the Reformasi movement in Malaysia, to the recent “nude squat” incident, where video sent over MMS helped document police abuse in Malaysia.

I regret that I’ve missed most of the rest of the discussions – there are some issues going on with Global Voices that have taken my attention – but I’ve been happy to catch short talks on fascinating projects like Gencnet, a portal for youth political involvement in Turkey. Mostly, I’m pleased to see that a (mostly full) room of Washingtonians are interested the sorts of issues we’re focused on at Global Voices, helping figure out how new technologies can help give voice to people who are otherwise disempowered.