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Digital politics: The future is broadband, not Facebook

The Personal Democracy Forum showed that industry-speak is finally moving away from blogs and YouTube and toward the tech policy issues that matter.

NEW YORK--It's time to stop waxing philosophical about how this thing called "new media" is shaping American elections and time to focus on the real tech issues, like broadband policy.

We talked about bloggers in 2004, we talked about YouTube in 2006, and the 2008 version of the conversation (social media) has already worn out its welcome. Instead, as the sentiment of the Personal Democracy Forum conference here overwhelmingly indicated, it's time to redirect the tech-politics spotlight to what really matters.

We've already learned the basic lessons about the digital campaign trail. Ask nicely for small donations (thanks, Barack Obama). Pay attention to niche communities of political junkies on the Web (thanks, Howard Dean). And whatever you do, don't say anything stupid when there's a camera around, which more or less means don't say anything stupid ever (thanks, George Allen).

But there's much more to the American political system than elections, something that's difficult to augur in a media business that gorges on weekly poll numbers and campaign scandals. "We have this radical, exciting party and activism surrounding this ideal every fourth year and then we crash," free-culture advocate Lawrence Lessig said in a speech Tuesday morning. "We depend too much, we lean too much, we rely too much on this one year, this fourth year. It blinds us to the fact that there's something much more fundamentally missing."

Lessig was talking about the need to keep an eye on government corruption all the time, not just when there's an election around the corner, but his argument stands when it comes to the rest of the conference: Too much of the talk about technology and politics is still focused on how to win an election using Facebook and YouTube. But as the conference indicated, that's going away as the American political system matures into its 21st-century incarnation and .

"It's like forming a new academic field," Harvard law school professor and Personal Democracy Forum speaker Jonathan Zittrain told me. The early years of the relationship between politics and technology were all about defining the medium, he said. "Once the hard work recedes, you're left actually figuring out what you want to do."

Good thing, because there are plenty of issues that need some attention.

I asked Larry Lessig to name the most overlooked tech policy issue facing America, and he said it's the management of the broadband spectrum. And at a cocktail party Monday night for Right Is Wrong, the new book from Huffington Post co-founder and Personal Democracy Forum speaker Arianna Huffington, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark explained in a conversation that while there are more pressing issues facing the country than anything "tech," that access to broadband technology nevertheless demands attention.

That was a big topic of discussion on Tuesday, when the focus of the Personal Democracy Forum was consciously oriented toward ongoing policy rather than elections--an admirable decision on the part of organizers Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry. The conference's big announcement was Internet for Everyone, a new initiative designed to ensure open Internet access as a "basic right" in the U.S.

"The '96 telecom act is a dud. It didn't work, it wasn't enforced, and it didn't take Internet into account in it. Broadband is important, it's part of the country's future, and we've got to fix it."
--Web pioneer Vint Cerf

"We need to bring affordable, truly high-speed broadband connections to everybody regardless of where that is," FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said to an audience at the conference. "The government has to make it a higher priority than it is today." He cited reasons including healthcare cost management, education reform, public safety, and energy policy.

There was a healthy dose of cynicism among audiences over whether anything could actually get done on such a feel-good issue, especially given the kind of telecom dollars flowing into Washington. But there was nevertheless a sense of urgency, given that Europe and Asia continue to leap ahead of the U.S. in terms of broadband speed and affordability.

"The '96 telecom act is a dud. It didn't work, it wasn't enforced, and it didn't take Internet into account in it," Web pioneer Vint Cerf said in a panel Tuesday afternoon about the future of tech policy. "Broadband is important, it's part of the country's future, and we've got to fix it."

But just as difficult as bringing tech issues to the forefront in Washington is bringing them to the millions of Americans who still haven't heard about Net neutrality or the broadband spectrum. It's an issue that just doesn't look quite as good on a cable news ticker as presidential candidates' gaffes caught on YouTube, but it's important--and relevant.

"Use the bully pulpit to be able to explain to some 90 percent or more of Americans that the media that they consume every day is all transforming to a digital platform," Josh Silver, director of Free Press, said in the same panel when asked what he'd do first to change tech policy if he were elected president. "It's all gadgets and terabytes and widgets and they don't' get it. (Explain) how it connects to their lives."

Americans should know that they can only use their iPhone on the AT&T carrier because of "a conscious policy decision that allows Steve Jobs to do that," Silver suggested as an example of a newsworthy item that could clue the public into the importance of broadband and telecom policy.

And it's clear that the message is getting out about the issues that matter, finally. A discussion on Tuesday afternoon debated the ambiguous definition of piracy, whether to nationalize telecommunications, and whether the U.S. should declare Internet access to be a civil right. A panel about the use of live video streaming in campaigns, on the other hand, devolved into a talk about what happens when the births of babies are broadcast on the Web.

Enough said.