As part of their ongoing commitment to support reforms and rights that close gaps in opportunity and equity, the Ford Foundation hosted the inagural Wired for Change Conference, and I was happy to attend on behalf of the Center for Media Justice on Februrary 16th in New York City. Attended by 200 leaders, this jam packed event featured experts and advocates from technology, philanthropy, government and business fields to discuss how technology can advance social change and an equitable digital future. Luis Ubinas, the President of Ford Foundation writes in his welcome letter, “Too much is at risk if we pursue social change without addressing digital inclusion – without working toward a future in which everyone has the skills and knowledge to participate fully in our digital world” .
The event brought in some high profile names and cutting edge Internet experts and innovators. The surprise guest speaker was former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who spent the majority of his hour speech talking about technology’s role in building and strengthening institutions. Other big names that presented were Tim Berners Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post, Spike Lee, film director, Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP, James Rucker, co-founder of ColorofChange.org, Anthony Romero of the American Civil Liberties Union, and Susan Crawford, formerly on the Obama-Biden FCC Agency Review Transition Team.
The subject of Egypt and the Internet’s role in their people’s popular uprising was a theme throughout the panels. Another theme that surfaced throughout the day was the need to protect network neutrality and an Open Internet which are key to fostering innovation, economic growth and bringing people out of the margins. However, not everyone was in agreement about how to get there. Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the World Wide Web asserted “The Internet should be neutral without policing from government or corporations.” To the contrary, it should be the governments job to ensure that there is no discrimination on the Internet and that every body has equal access to an Open Internet. The right to an affordable and accessible Internet in this digital information age is a basic utility, just like the telephone or electricity.
While this important gathering on the future of technology and the Internet was taking place in New York, Congress was holding an important hearing on net neutrality where members were deciding on a bill moving pursuant to the Congressional Review Act (CRA). The CRA allows Congress to overturn regulations passed by federal agencies. In this case, the bill would overturn the FCC’s recently announced Net Neutrality regulations. However, the CRA does not just overturn the existing regulations – it also prevents an agency from passing future regulations on the same topic – Net Neutrality. Art Brodsky of Public Knowledge spoke up during the morning session of the conference to inform the packed auditorium of this critical hearing taking place and encouraged people to join “The Internet Strikes Back” campaign
It was interesting to hear Ben Jealous, president of NAACP speak about the importance of the Internet. He stated, “The Internet is the town square” and it’s all about who is in the square. Hopefully those in the square will bend technology’s arc toward justice.” For the last several years, media justice advocates like the Center for Media justice have been working to win over civil rights groups to the net neutrality fight, a central communications tool in the social justice fight. Unfortunately many of these groups have either come out against net neutrality or have kept quiet. According to NAACP’s website“.. the NAACP’s formal policy position neither endorses, nor opposes the formally defined concept of “net neutrality”. Let’s hope that the NAACP stands up for Net Neutrality which is essentially about protecting fairness, equality and civil rights. A vast majority of the information these civil rights groups are receiving are coming from greedy telecommunications companies, but that is changing with campaigns like Latinos for Internet Freedom, which is comprised of groups who support net neutrality.
Finally, President Bill Clinton, founder of the William J. Clinton Foundation focused his remarks on technology’s potential to build, strengthen, and reform institutions in developing world. Clinton acknowledged the positive role that technology can play in bringing about progress, but in some cases (particularly in developed countries), technology can often be part of the problem. What was starkly absent from his speech was the issue of an Open Internet (which his wife and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton spoke about a few days before) in the U.S. You don’t need to go to the Third World to find a digital divide, it’s happening right in our own backyard.
The conference closed with an affirmation that we must work to create a digital future that benefits all people—that is open, equitable and accessible and more importantly for the poor and most marginalized. One overarching question that participants were left with was: “How do we ensure that technology will jumpstart next-generation breakthroughs on crucial social issues such as education, human rights, health, and economic development?” We can start with protecting an Open Internet and organize for the full adoption, affordability, and openness of broadband networks. Join CMJ and MAG-Net in this fight!