Overheard Online  
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We rounded up the Internet's foremost opinion-makers and pulse-takers to ask them: what's the latest Web-think about America?

Part I: American identity online? | Part II

Do you think that the Internet will be a place for people to discuss important social and political issues as individuals nationally (within America), or internationally, and also to effect change at the government level? Will the system be re-organized?

Laura Breeden: The Internet has been a platform for political and social debate from its beginnings in the 1970s, when email discussion lists and Unix bulletin boards began to proliferate among the research universities and defense contractors who were the earliest Internet nodes. (It was also a platform for jokes, technical debates, discussions about wine and rock-climbing, and most of the other communications that make us human.) It's safe to say that this will continue. As to whether it will "effect change at the government level," it already has in one fundamental way: it is much easier today to share information, and to take action based on what you find. Secrecy and obfuscation, time honored traditions of governments the world over, are harder to maintain in a network-enabled information culture. Political action can be organized almost instantly (think flash mobs). First-hand accounts and unfiltered opinions can mobilize new activists, whether the issue is global warming or terrorism.

"Ask the ex-Presidents of the Philippines, Korea, and Spain whether the system has been reorganized. The Internet — and the mobile telephone — already are potent tools for organizing political demonstrations and electoral politics."

— Howard Rheingold

Bruce Kushnick: I see the political environment as polluted. The idea of enacting change using the Internet is a mirage, because the powers that be watch TV, and have the attention of the public through all means, not simply online. Unfortunately, elecommunications and broadband issues are essentially non-issues to the average joe. But did you know that the US is 16th in the world in broadband access? Or that in Korea, customers have access to 100 Mbps high speed Internet for $40 a month? In the U.S., DSL is usually less than 1 Mbps.

In the last few weeks a stir has happened. There's a new coalition, "Save the Internet," just in case you didn't know it needed saving. It turns out the phone companies, AT&T, Verizon, claim they own the 'pipes,' (those networks you get your Internet service from most likely...) and they want to block competitors, and charge Google and Ebay more, do a series of things that will impact access to the internet negatively. Our government will be voting on important legislation, and it's not looking good.

And the impact of the online community? On the good side, the SavetheInternet.com Coalition had collected more than 250,000 signatures in less than one week, calling on the House Energy & Commerce Committee to protect Internet freedom by passing the "Markey Amendment." However, the Amendment did not pass. We lost the vote. The other side out trying to persuade legislators at the same time: hundreds of groups working for the phone companies, including think tanks, co-opted consumer groups, lobbyists, etc. who have hundreds of millions of dollars to spend on full page advertisments in multiple newspapers, radio spots and direct mail.

The bottom line is that in DC money talks, face-time is important, and while some online campaigns may impact the government and congress (and the FCC), online is only a component part of life and politics.

Howard Rheingold: This seems like a strangely anachronistic question, given the Howard Dean campaign, Moveon.org, the bloggers versus Dan Rather and Trent Lott, the role of OhMyNews in the election of President Roh in Korea, the role of the Internet in recent Spanish elections, the hundreds of thousands of Chinese bloggers and their relationship to the anti-Japanese demonstrations , the simultaneous worldwide demonstrations prior to the American invasion of Iraq -- I could go on for pages. Ask the ex-Presidents of the Philippines, Korea, and Spain whether the system has been reorganized. The Internet -- and the mobile telephone -- already are potent tools for organizing political demonstrations and electoral politics. Discussions and debates over every possible issue take place all around the world in Usenet newsgroups, Google and Yahoo groups, chatrooms, and blog comments.

Tom W. Smith: Already millions of people communicate internationally via the Internet on a daily basis and this number will expand many fold as Internet access spread throughout the world and the Internet-savvy younger generation replace the older generations that are less Internet connected.

Jeff Yang: People have long talked about how the Internet is a disruptive force in commerce, communications, and media; they've only recently started to become broadly aware of how much it's transforming politics. The insurgent Howard Dean campaign, the now-established role of the blogosphere as a force for swarming punditry and for fundraising, the increasing influence of online political communities like DailyKos on the left and FreeRepublic on the right—these are just the tip of the iceberg.

The even bigger story is how the Internet is helping individuals to feel newly empowered. I recently wrote a short observation on "flash protests"—rapid-response virtual rallies that use the Internet to organize, and often to deliver, political activity, via email letter-writing campaigns, information and protest sites, and the like. The biggest problem that America's political system faces today is that voters don't feel engaged; they don't believe their voices can be heard, or that their actions have meaning.

The Internet offers immediacy, so users can see the direct consequences of their behavior. It provides a forum for open and largely uncensored dialogue. It gives them a way to magnify their voices, with the promise that a well reasoned comment or a particularly passionate rant might be heard around the world, and even in the halls of power.

Take a look at what our experts said about American identity online in Part I of Overheard Online.

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You Are What You Click
The Contributors:

Laura BreedenLaura Breeden is an educator and change agent who got her first Internet address in 1983. She is interested in the potential of the Internet to empower individuals and transform systems. She works at Education Development Center, in Newton, Massachusetts.

Bruce KushnickBruce Kushnick is the Chairman of Teletruth, a nationwide, independent customer alliance, and is the author of the ebook, $200 Billion Broadband Scandal.

Howard RheingoldHoward Rheingold is one of the world's foremost authorities on the social implications of technology. He is also the author of several books, including Smart Mobs, The Virtual Community, and Tools for Thought.

Tom W. SmithTom W. Smith is a professor at the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center.

Jeff YangJeff Yang interprets social and consumer trends for the strategic advisory firm Iconoculture, focusing on the emerging global Asian market. He writes a column about Asian popular culture and identity for SFGate.com, the website of the San Francisco Chronicle, and has written three books.

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