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We need a digital Constitutional Convention

Today we stand at the crossroads of establishing digital society for generations to come. By now, it is clear to everyone—not just network engineers and policy wonks—that the Internet is at the same time a huge mechanism for opportunity and for control. Though the advent of the Internet is propelling a true revolution in society, we’re not ready for it. Not even close.

For one thing, we are so politically polarized at the national level. The latest evidence: the net neutrality debate. Except it wasn’t. For the most part, it was characterized by those who favor assertive regulatory change for net neutrality stating their position, restating their position, then yelling out their position. Those arguing for the status quo policy did likewise. As the battle lines were drawn, there was little room to pragmatically consider a compromise advanced by some stakeholders.

The current state of digital privacy seems along these lines, as well. With copyright, it is even worse, as a decades-long “debate” has those favoring the strongest copyright protection possible dominating the discourse.

Another problem, as the preceding discussion suggests, is that issues clearly related to each other—such as telecommunications, privacy, and copyright—are debated mostly in their own silos. We need a radically different approach to address these foundational concerns that will have ramifications for decades to come. We need something akin to the Constitutional Convention that took place 228 years ago. We need today’s equivalents of George Washington, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin to come together and apply their intellectual and political smarts—and work together for the good of all, to lay out the framework for many years to follow.

Most people in the country are in the middle of the political spectrum. They (We) are reasonable people. We want to do as we please, but realize that we don’t have the right to impinge on others’ freedom unduly. We’re Main Street USA.

This sounds so simple and matter-of-fact, but we inside-the-beltway people understand how hard this is to achieve in national policy. We just look outside our windows and see the U.S. Capitol and White House to remind ourselves of the challenge of achieving common-sense compromise in a harsh political climate.

Of course this is not easy. Some of us think of the challenge we need to address as access to information in the digital society, but really we’re talking about the allocation of power—so the stakes are even higher than some may think.

In a number of respects, power is more distributed in digital society. Obviously, laws, regulation, and related public policy remain important. Large traditional telecommunications and media companies remain influential. But now the national information industry includes Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and other major corporate players who also effectively make “public policy” through product decisions. Similarly, the continuing de facto devolvement from copyright law to a licensing regime (with the rapid growth of ebooks as the latest major casualty) also is shifting power from government to corporations. In some respects, individuals also have more power thanks to the proliferation of digital information and the internet that enable capabilities that previously only organizations could muster (e.g., publishing, national advocacy).

Thus, we are talking about the fundamental shape of the digital society and how power gets wielded within it. What are the proper legal and policy regimes that promote “reasonable” playing fields? What are the necessary roles of government, philanthropy, and not-for-profit organizations in the digital age?

The recently launched Netgain initiative is a step in the right direction. Netgain, led by the Ford Foundation with the Knight Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Mozilla Foundation, and Open Society Foundations as partners, explicitly recognizes that collective effort is necessary now to build a stronger digital society.

We at the American Library Association are working together with organizations that possess diverse perspectives with respect to digital copyright. Through the newly-launched Re:Create coalition, we are striving for a fair, balanced, and reasonable regime for the future of copyright—one that is true to the Constitutional mandate to “promote the progress of science and the useful arts.”

At the core, libraries and librarians work to make information available to everyone in a reasonable and fair way, working with many stakeholders and serving diverse communities. We will be working on these issues for many years to come—and hope to collaborate with many of you reading this right now.

This is a huge challenge, and the United States is up to it—if we put our minds to it. But we need to move more purposefully and faster. It is time for national leaders in government, philanthropy, and the not-for-profit sector to convene our digital constitutional convention.

Inouye leads technology policy for the American Library Association. Previously, he coordinated the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee in the Executive Office of the President, and directed information technology policy studies at the National Academy of Sciences.


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