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Hillary Rodham Clinton and her deputies in the U.S. State Department have been going crazy lately supporting the rights of people worldwide to use the Internet to more widely “distribute leadership” (in the words of Alec Ross, Senior Advisor for Innovation to the Secretary of State). She is speaking, of course, of efforts by Tunisians, Egyptians, and Iranians to organize peaceful protests against despotic regimes. She is very supportive of the use of Twitter and Facebook to schedule demonstrations, distribute video footage of these protests, and convey the spirit of peoples in revolt.
Not part of Secretary Clinton’s exhortations is the fact that the Internet can also be used, once democracy is achieved, to directly channel the will of the people into legislation that will determine how these people themselves will be governed. “Smart Initiatives” is a system whereby the citizens in a democracy can electronically sign officially-recognized petitions that call for the submission to a vote of proposed legislation.
The Next Step in the Evolution of Internet Political Activism
The European Union (EU) has already adopted Smart Initiatives, in the form of the European Citizens’ Initiative, which requires the consideration of proposed legislation by the European Commission and the European Parliament when one million Europeans electronically and/or manually sign that proposed legislation.
No individual country, including none of the nascent democracies in North Africa or the Middle East, has yet adopted Smart Initiatives for its own people. But, in the wake of the surging democratic tide breaking over this region, powered by the Internet, it may be only a matter of time before the concept of Smart Initiatives begins to permeate these digital crowds and they start clamoring for the right, not just to overthrow authoritarian regimes using the indispensable modern technology of the Internet, but to use this same Internet as a means for formulating the laws under which they are governed.
Obstacles to this Evolution in the U.S.
Back in the U.S., little despots are doing what they can to block the way forward to a Internet-powered democratic future. Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives are working hard trying to block the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s recently-issued and limited regulations designed to insure “net neutrality,” a code word for open and non-discriminatory access to the broadband information superhighway.
In Utah, members of the State Senate, frightened that a legislative ethics reform initiative sponsored by Utahns for Ethical Government will qualify for the ballot if electronic signatures collected in its support are counted, are pushing S.B. 55, which would curtail the use of electronic signatures throughout government in that State, including, they hope, on initiative petitions.
In a recent interview with the Etopia News Channel, Utahns for Ethical Government founder and spokesperson David Irvine said he thought the motivations behind authoritarian governments’ efforts to curtail the use of the Internet to organize their populations were the same as those behind the efforts of legislators in his state to stifle the use of the Internet to organize that state’s population in support of what he considers to be badly-needed ethics legislation.
In fact, it is hard to see the difference in intent between Utah legislators trying to prevent their own reform by limiting the use of the Internet and the efforts by national dictators elsewhere to prevent their own reform by limiting the use of the Internet.
Wait and Hope
Meanwhile, we can only wait and hope for the large numbers of Internet-users rising up against repressive regimes to take the next conceptual step and realize that the same tool they are using to gain their freedom can be effectively used to exercise it going forward, in the shape of their own indigenous forms of Smart Initiatives.