Personal Democracy Forum 2012: Powerful settings, diverse community and rich agenda, but surprisingly missing some key topics.

I am very grateful to the organizers of the Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) to allow me to attend PDF 2012, which has taken place on this past Monday the 11th and on Tuesday the 12th of June, 2012 in New York City. The PDF is an annual conference concerning Internet and its impact on politics, governance, and advocacy. This PDF was the first PDF that I attended in the US, but this was not the first time I attended a PDF, as I attended my first PDF in Europe, which was held in 2009 in Barcelona, Spain. I can just say that the PDF gets better and better as the years go by!!!.

Let me start by saying what constitutes, in my opinion, the PDF’s most significant aspect. There is something powerful in the mere celebration of PDF, which has to do with the savvy design of PDF performance. The radical political goal, which is in favor of the defense of the principles of Internet’s Freedom and in favor of Internet with the final political goal of promoting Democracy, is presented in an elegant, beautiful, notorious, attractive, and entertaining way. This performance serves the political goal by expand and bringing the attention of the issues to new audiences, which in other settings would not know or pay attention.

The easiest criticism to PDF performance could be “PDF is expensive and has many sponsors propaganda”. Yes, but this constitutes another important message of PDF. The Freedom of the Internet should be made sustainable or will not be. Moreover, approaches, which ignore the importance of sustainability, will become irrelevant. Sustainable models (through a combination of several sources of funding: public, private, commercialization, exchange, and so forth, as more diverse as better in order to guarantee the independence of such sources of funding) is a key element. Furthermore, it is also very positive and very significant in terms of PDF political character that the PDF finds ways to make the forum accessible, for those who cannot afford to pay the entrance fee, for example, by means of a fellowship or volunteering programs.

Another important thing, which it is not common in technological circles, and to be applauded is that PDF has a speaker gender balance of 60% men 40% women, I never saw before anything close to this!. Yeah!!!! We can do it!!!!!. Actually, it is a conference built on and promote diversity. In fact, people from diverse ethnicities and origins were part of the program.

In regard to the methodology, the forum is in reality a set of presentations by individuals. To non-US audience, this format of speeches by individuals presenting their successful, enthusiastic, and awesome ideas, might be seen – even if interesting – a bit odd, “celebrity” like. Ideas and knowledge could be framed as emerging though other sources than individual brilliant celebrities, such as giving more predominance to collective processes and thinking, or the methodology that built upon. But on this PDF is normal in its own society, it is just a reflection of the USA’s individualistic culture. Even sometimes to much stream, as at the program you can see the names of the speakers in the small sessions, but not know which experience they are going to present or the topic of their talk. But, here I would like to point to something else. One of the things I enjoyed the most, while attending the PDF, was observing the speakers’ contradicting each other. For example, on one hand Deanna Zandt was pointing out to how networks could balance the hierarchical power structures, and on the other hand, Dave Parry was stating that networks are not powerless themselves and that there is also power concentration in a network structure as it is the case in hierarchical format. In both cases the power functions differently, but there are power sources in both formats: hierarchical and horizontal. And another example would be: Alex Torpey was pointing out to new entrance points to institutional politics though local connections, while Cane Ross was pointing out to the deep political crisis and lack of believe in change though political system. In other words, changing the world by taking the State or though building a contrapower and another system. These contradictory points of view of the PDF speakers are transversally present in the movement. Stressing this contradictions, creating dialog between speakers or integrating all the presentations would, in my opinion, be very useful. Let me also add that the PDF does a very good job at attracting speakers “from the other side”. For example, the PDF has invited Cary Sherma, who shared his view of the music industry from the view of the music industry.

In regard to the agenda discussed at the PDF, it is interesting to observe how PDF is expanding on its topics: from issues narrowly related to politics and Internet to issues which are not easily seen as related to the Internet. I particularly enjoyed the speech by Van Jones. Van Jones suggested creating bridges between the tools for sharing and the communities of excluded people where sharing is not a value or a choice, but a condition to survive, or the talk of Jessica Beinecke who presented her blog as a bridge between USA and China citizens though hilarious diplomacy.

The conference started with the discussion of SOPA and PIPA achievement, for meritorious reasons. We have heard a wide range of different voices speaking on the issue. The most notable contribution on the issue in my view was Yochai Benkler –my mentor at the Berkman center so not surprise I like it! :-). Benkler did present a group research on the evolution of the network policy surrounding the SOPA and PIPA based on hyper-links visualization as an example of networked public sphere.

Now, let me ask you a question: What happens if SOPA/PIPA campaign would expand itself from Internet-related issues to meta-politics, aiming to change the overall political system, and with this move would mobilize the support of 81% of USA citizens population (with supporters both on the left and on the right)?. I am not asking you to dream. This is very possible. This is what happened to Spain.

As the Spanish case – surprisingly – was not presented in the PDF, even being the larger mobilization in Europe, let me explain it a bit here.

Spain has witnessed a wave of social mobilizations starting 15M (15th of May, 2011), when people started to create large-scale demonstrations ever seen since the country transitioned to the democracy in the 70s. The 15M – alternatively known as indignados mobilizationnot only caused surprise because of the size of the protest, but also because of its character. The 15M movement has become the latest and greatest exponent of self-mobilization arranged through the Internet. It is very interesting to explore its origins and organizational inspiration.

In December 2010 a large mobilization against the Sinde Law, a Spanish equivalent of SOPA/PIPA, has emerged. A strong opposition movement was created and plan of actions to oppose the law was developed over the Internet. Publications on Facebook of the “Manifesto of defense of the fundamental rightsopposing the Sinde Law attracted, in less than 24 hours, more than 240,000 respondents. The expressions of rejection of Sinde Law had large prominence on Twitter too. The hashtags #leysinde or #sindegate became a trending topic. Cyberatacs or DdoS generated a large flow of information from several points of connection to block web pages of the Popular Party, Socialist Party (PSOE), Catalan Nationalist Party (CIU), and of the Congress of the Deputies, as the actors who were in favor of the law. In December of 2010, the law was not passed. This constituted a great achievement for all those who opposed it. However, in the mid-February of 2011 the Sinde Law was enacted. The enactment of the law was met with a campaign under the title of Do Not Vote For Them (in Spanish “Nolesvotes”), which was organized by Internet freedom activists, who tried to influence the municipal elections of May 2011. Nolesvotes denounced the corruption of the political system. It created a shared manifesto that asked the people not to vote for political parties that had approved the Sinde Law. To sum up, the approval of the Sinde Law prompted part of the Internet freedom movement to reconsider its campaign focus and activities (previously centered on free culture issues) which then were directed at addressing the political system as a whole for a Real Democracy Now. Just like Lawrence Lessig announced that he would stop working on Creative Commons to start working in Changing Congress in 2007, the Internet freedom activist of Spain moved from “free culture” issues to “meta-politics” issues. The actors behind the campaign against the Sinde Law, and the Nolesvotes decided to create a platform for citizens’ mobilization against corruption and dysfunction of the political system and organized, together with other forces, the demonstration of May 15th, 2012, which created the most spectacular cycle of mobilization in the history of Spain’s democracy. I further explain this in a recent article (Fuster Morell, M. (2012). The Free Culture and 15M movements in Spain: Composition, social networks and synergies. Social Movement Studies), and in a research (book only in catalan) I write together with Joan Subirats.

The Spain’s case is very relevant to PDF’s agenda for another reason as well – the potentialities of the Left – Right Coalition. As pointed out previously, the majority of Spanish people (81%) consider that the “indignados” had good reasons to mobilize. It is also interesting to note that many shared the same belief, no matter which political background they came from. Among the voters of Socialist Party (PSOE – left wing) 87% considered that indignados were right in their demands, and 67% among the voters of Popular Party (PP – right wing). (Data from a survey released by for El Pais major Spanish Newspaper in June 2011).

Finally, Spain’s case is relevant also in terms of contributing to the “globalization” of the protest, being present in the emergence of OWS (Occupy Wall Street protest) and being the first promoter of the global day of mobilization on 15th of October, 2011, which mobilized more than 950 cities and 82 countries.

Having said that, it is surprising that not only the lack of attention to the Spanish case or the 15 October mobilization, but also the lack of discussions about Occupy Wall Street protest – even if it was mentioned by a few speakers. There were talks on Israel and Arab Spring, but why not on Occupy Wall Street protest?. You can be more or less supporter of the OWS – as you can be of the Tea Party – but it cannot be denied that OWS is an experience from which lessons can be drawn on how Internet is impacting the politics.

But if any, for me personally, there was missing understanding of the emerging commons as model, metaphor and umbrella for political and economic transformation. It is so surprising that there is a lack of knowledge of the common’s paradigms in PDF circles, while in indignados mobilization and OWS commons paradigm, even in United Nations, is discussed. This did more painful to learn, while at the PDF, about the death of Elinor Ostrom, one of the people who has contributed more to the commons and who was and is the inspiration source for many, like me, who has worked or research on the digital commons area. In 2009, Elinor Ostrom became the first political scientific and woman to win the Economic Nobel Prize. I cried for Lin loss at the PDF, unfortunately alone, as I did not find other people who would sympathize with death of such noble woman.

Here again, another learning from attending PDF. The PDF constitutes an impressive setting for promoting Internet freedom and empower democracy though Internet and to address a rich agenda, which amplifies and strong the message, but there is still a lot to reflect upon and bring into the agenda, and bridges and links to be built!!! Yeah!!


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