The 11th annual Personal Democracy Forum took place last week in New York City. It’s truly a special event, designed to bring together a diverse group of people to discuss cutting-edge issues in technology, politics, and civic life. This year’s theme, “Save the Internet / The Internet Saves,” couldn’t have been more appropriate or timely. For those of us on Microsoft’s Technology and Civic Engagement team, PDF was a chance to meet leaders in civic tech/civic innovation from around the world and to share ideas about building stronger communications channels between citizens and governments, continuing to open up government processes and data, and encouraging innovative solutions to the challenges of a modern city.
Not surprisingly, the implications of Edward’s Snowden’s disclosures about the NSA’s ubiquitous spying program was a dominant theme. PDF coincided with the one year anniversary of his disclosures, and Snowden addressed the audience via live link from Russia. He spoke passionately about the need for America to return to its fundamental values, to correct the legal and political misjudgments that had enabled the NSA’s programs.
Microsoft’s General Counsel Brad Smith (@BradSmi) sounded the same theme, noting that in times of great national concern about security, the pendulum has often swung too far, with presidents from John Adams to Abraham Lincoln to Franklin Delano Roosevelt each making decisions in the interests of national security that ultimately conflicted with America’s core principles. Noting that Microsoft had taken the extraordinary step of suing the federal government over a search warrant seeking customer data located in Ireland, he called for a number of reforms to bring our government’s practices back into line with our fundamental principles, e.g., ending the bulk collection of data, increasing the transparency about the government’s practices, reforming the secret FISA court. Andrew Rasiej, co-founder of Personal Democracy Media, called Brad’s speech “one of the most spirited defenses of democracy that I’ve ever heard at PDF.”
One other observation from PDF: the widespread recognition of Greater Boston’s leadership in the civic tech community. In conversations, panel discussions, and even from the main stage, there were notable references to the great civic tech work being done here. On a panel entitled “Making Civic Tech That Serves Community Needs,” Nigel Jacob of Boston’s New Urban Mechanics made a compelling case that the work of civic technologists and innovators needs to be deeply connected to the community.
Ultimately, the overriding message of PDF was one of hope and optimism. There is a strong, international community committed to the value of the open Internet and believing in the power of technology to be a force for good. While there is work to be done to Save the Internet from practices that threaten freedom and openness, the Internet Saves, by providing the place for innovation and collaboration for the greater public good.
Tags: and civic life, Andrew Rasiej, Boston, Brad Smith, Civic Tech, Data, Edward’s Snowden, Government, microsoft, New Urban Mechanics, New York City, Nigel Jacob, NSA, open Internet, PDF, Personal Democracy Forum, Personal Democracy Forum XI, politics, privacy, Save the Internet, security, technology, Technology and Civic Engagement team, The Internet Saves