National Conference on Media Reform - Day 1

I went down to the Minneapolis Convention Center for day 1 of the National Conference on Media reform this afternoon. I skipped the Larry Lessig morning plenary and arrived at about 1 p.m. I wandered through the displays in the ballroom, ate half an over-priced burrito and then headed for the first afternoon panel session.

Panel 1 - Free Speech in the 21st Century

Josh Wolf kicked things off with his account of being imprisoned for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury in 2006. Naturally he concluded his talk with a call to support a federal shield law protecting people who do journalism, not just people who are employed as journalists.

C. Edwin Baker made some short comments about First Amendment legal theory. The First Amendment only protects us from government interference with speech. If a corporation seeks to curtail free speech then you’re legally out of luck. Corporations also argue that the first amendment protects them from coercive legislation that might regulate their right to merge, etc. There are two clauses in the First Amendment: one protecting individual speech, the other protecting the institutions of the press.

Caroline Fredrickson spoke about the ACLU free speech campaigns. I was intrigued by the case of the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act that is being promoted by Joe Lieberman. The bill attempts to prevent radical Muslim extremists from spreading their message in America. YouTube was asked to remove some videos as a result of this effort. Videos that violated the community terms of service were removed but others were not.

I was tempted to ask about the intersection/overlap between free speech and website terms of service. What is the case law on this issue? How easily can a website remove content that it deems inappropriate? Would this ever become a first amendment issue? If there are any constitutional lawyers who read this please feel free to leave a comment.

Panel 2 - Legislation 2.0: Self-Governance and Policy on the Open Internet

This panel was even better. Right in my personal bailiwick: open-government and all other open knowledge endeavors.

Micha Sifry kicked things off with a short movie showing a nifty use of Google Earth to display congressional earmarks for the defense industry. This was just the beginning of the cool stuff the Sunlight Foundation is doing.

Andre Banks began by describing his project Color of Change which was formed after Katrina to improve the presence of the progressive black population in government. He described the case of the Jena 6 as the perfect storm for online activism. From there Color of Change has made great strides to intervene in the criminal justice system on behalf of the black population.

Matt Stoller went next and talked about a blogging project that took place a year or two ago. Senator Dick Durbin agreed to participate in an online forum around a bill under consideration in Congress. I forget the topic of the bill but the upshot was that new internet tools could penetrate the conversation in Washington D.C. with enough work and persistence.

Russell Newman, a former staffer for Senator Durbin, recounted his experience with the public conversation about the bill from inside the sausage factory. He concluded by emphasizing the banality of policy making: it really is all about access, and a common sense evaluation of legitimacy.

Micha Sifry mentioned a few other projects of interest including qik for streaming video from a cell phone and Open Congress for tracking bills before Congress.

In the Q&A I asked about the sustainability of a project like Open Congress and the transfer of tools like it to the local level. The software that runs Open Congress is open source so it’s available for people to setup on a state or local level. I smell yet another potential project. Long-term sustainability is still up in the air.

One of the most interesting questions from the audience was about dividing resources between old and new institutions. Sifry responded that he would give most of the funding to new institutions. Liberals need to be more adventurous and stop giving to institutions because of sentimentality or past achievements. Others on the panel disagreed and discussion ensued.

One-on-one brainstorming

Instead of going to the Minnesota caucus I met with James O. in an ad-hoc session to discuss his ideas about communicating liberal ideas to the mainstream. He was full of very interesting proposals and thoughts, ranging from recasting the Superman story, creating a new form of found political poetry based on haiku, starting a new political party, and forming a new 247 news channel. It was a fun and interesting conversation. I showed him a couple of social software tools like delicious and Twitter. I wish him the best of luck.

Two ideas I really liked were doing a children’s book based on Confessions of an Economic Hitman by John Perkins. I replied that it would be great to make it into a stop motion animated video. I encouraged James to think more about cultural peer production as a method to get his ideas into the world. Perhaps we will work on it together.