Reclaiming our government starts with universal Internet access
Look out, government. You're about to get seriously disrupted.
The Internet tsunami that swept publishing, book selling, taxis, and countless other industries is about to swamp the public sector. As with other Internet-based industry makeovers, the re-creation of government is occurring from the bottom up. And as usual, the government officials representing the power elite are resisting the change with all their might.
They will learn, as did all the executive deniers before them, that resistance is futile.
One of President Obama's first official acts was to release a Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government that called for three things: transparency, citizen participation, and government collaboration. The Society of Professional Journalists' Freedom of Information Committee recently called out the Obama administration on its empty promises of transparency and openness, as Bloomberg News' Justin Sink reports in an August 12, 2015, article.
White House officials counter that the Obama administration has processed more Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests than any previous administration. At the same time, the American Civil Liberties Union claims that the current administration has charged or prosecuted more public officials for leaking information to the press than all previous administrations combined.
So much for the government's attempts to fix itself.
Participation replaces protest
As part of his Government 2.0 proposal, tech evangelist Tim O'Reilly describes the Government as a Platform. According to O'Reilly, under the current government model, when citizens don't get what they want, their only option is to protest. The provision of government services is compared to a vending machine: our choices are limited by whoever stocks the machine. In the government-as-platform model, services are provided more like a bazaar, where the government provides the space, the stalls, and other facilities, but the vending is done by citizens, and shoppers' choices are determined by those merchants. It's the citizen participants -- not the government -- who determine what's bought and sold.
Participation is the second of the three requirements for open government. The first necessity is transparency, which means making public all information created or collected by the government. The current default setting for information publication is "private," as indicated by government officials' reliance of FOIA requests before releasing any information. Unfortunately, this approach misses the point terribly.
First, there's nothing simple or certain about FOIA requests. Maybe the information you're seeking will be released, and maybe it won't be. As the FOIAdvocates site indicates, appealing the denial of an FOIA request is anything but easy. Second, FOIA requests must state with some specificity what information you're looking for. If you don't know a particular document of interest exists, how can you request it?
But the principal reason relying on FOIA requests shows government totally unclear on the concept is the availability of public data in the aggregate. There is a tremendous amount of potential in use of government-collected information to benefit everyone. However, we'll be waiting a long, long time if we rely on the government to develop the app-services derived from analysis of these oceans of public data. How can citizens participate in the provision of public services if they don't have access to the raw material that makes the services possible? That's why the default setting for government information has to be reset to "public."
What's it going to take to modernize government?
We know that government will not change from within. Expecting a Democrat or Republican to alter the status quo is foolish, despite their claims to the contrary. So how do we go about changing government from without? We can start by refusing to serve as enablers of a corrupt, corroded, unjust, and unfair political system. At present, it's impractical to refuse to vote for any candidate who accepts huge contributions from any person or group. It doesn't matter who the contributor is -- they're all buying influence. The fact that some of the corrupt contributors share your political views doesn't make what they're doing any less corrupt.
What we need are candidates who aren't beholden to party apparatchiks or big-money contributors. You might wonder who that leaves to vote for. Well, there's Lawrence Lessig, the Harvard Law professor who recently announced his one-issue Presidential campaign to reform campaign financing. The Stranger's Rich Smith explains in an August 25, 2015, article that Lessig intends to get a single bill passed, which he's calling the Citizen Equality Act of 2017. Once that bill is enacted, Lessig intends to resign and allow his Vice President (could be Bernie Sanders, could be Elizabeth Warren) to finish his term.
What we need are candidates for all federal, state, and local offices who pledge to support the open-government and government-as-platform principles. They must also promise not to accept any large campaign contributions or to be otherwise influenced by special interests. You won't find these candidates at any Democratic or Republican committee meetings (or those of any other political party, for that matter).
More important than truly independent candidates for office, the open-government approach requires universal access to the Internet to ensure that all citizens have the opportunity to participate and collaborate. That means free basic Internet access for everyone, and provision of the hardware required to access Internet information. At present, access to the Internet is gated by private companies: ISPs, computer makers, and phone vendors. Even if we wait for Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg to fill the skies with his Internet-access drones (or Google to unleash its army of Loon-y balloons), our 'net access will depend on a non-public entity.
So the first step toward a government of, by, and for the people is not electing Lawrence Lessig or anyone else as President. It's not flooding government agencies with FOIA requests. It's not even overturning Citizens United and attempting to bring some equity to campaign financing. No, the re-establishment of a truly democratic government begins by making access to the Internet a birthright that no private entity can withhold.
As one of my law-school professors said when I first proposed the idea to her, "Good luck with that."