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A More Democratic Internet

On March 17, the Federal Communications Commission will present the U.S. Congress with its National Broadband Plan, a set of recommendations for bringing high-speed Internet access to the millions of Americans who don't yet have it. The plan is likely to determine the allocation of the $7.2 billion in stimulus money intended to bring broadband to rural and underserved areas, and many observers believe that the government is already planning to augment that investment with billions more in discretionary spending.

In anticipation of the plan's unveiling, the FCC is holding a series of regional forums on particular aspects of the plan like that co-hosted by the MIT Media Lab's Center for Future Civic Media. Eugene Huang, director of government performance and civic engagement for the National Broadband Plan, spoke at MIT on the plan's provisions for better engaging the public in the democratic process.

Huang began by describing the FCC's attempts to engage the public in the creation of the broadband plan itself, describing the agency's 35 public workshops on the topic, held between August of last year and the end of January, some of which had as many as 1,000 live attendees and another 5,000 online participants. He also commended the launch, last May, of data.gov, an online index of publicly available government data maintained by the White House. "But," he added, "data.gov includes only a small amount of federal-government data, and we believe that all data and information that the government treats as public should be made available online, in machine-readable formats." Huang said that the broadband plan recommends that data from the legislative and judiciary branches, too, be freely accessible online, pointing out, for example, that the federal courts' Public Access to Court Electronic Records system, or PACER, charges for access to judicial decisions. In fact, Huang said, "The U.S. federal courts themselves pay private contractors $150 million annually for electronic access to judicial documents."

Huang also said that the plan urges the creation of a public archive of historically significant video -- a kind of YouTube for policy deliberations and news footage. To that end, he said, the FCC will call on Congress to revise copyright law to make it easier for news organizations to donate historical footage to the archive.

In addition, he emphasized that the federal government should make better use of social media, pointing to the success of the Centers for Disease Control in using Twitter, YouTube, podcasts, and other social-networking technologies to disseminate information about the H1N1 flu outbreak.

When he turned to the topic of how government can draw citizens into the deliberative process, rather than simply providing them with better information, Huang became a little more vague: "Government is just beginning to think about these types of issues," he acknowledged. But in thinking about how to use digital tools to directly engage the citizenry, he said, the government is using digital tools to directly engage the citizenry. The White House's Open Government Initiative, Huang said, has used what he described as "public brainstorming blogs, a wiki, and a collaborative drafting tool" to solicit public participation in determining just what its project should be.

Huang grew more specific, however, in describing how Internet access could facilitate the process of voter registration and make voters' records more portable. "One recent study estimates that voter registration problems resulted in more than two millions voters' being unable to vote in the 2008 general election," Huang said. "Providing broadband to more Americans provides an important opportunity to fix the problems in the existing process."

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