The politically minded group of people meeting recently near Washington, D.C. weren't wearing enough navy suits and power ties to be confused with Congress, but they expressed much deeper concern for the Internet than most elected officials can muster.
In a city that rewards big lobbying budgets and high-power connections, the 150 attendees of the Internet Commons Congress, which met recently in Rockville, Maryland, were mostly Washington outsiders working on grassroots campaigns often focused on changing the status quo.
This first Internet Commons Congress (ICC), organized by telecommunications analyst Daniel Berninger and New Yorkers for Fair Use, assembled several Internet communities. Participants included members of free speech groups, the free software movement, and privacy activists.
The idea for the event came from "the observation that there's only one Internet, but there are hundreds of campaigns to save the Internet," Berninger says. "There haven't been many victories among the grassroots and open Internet. If the leaders of these campaigns communicate ... we can be a more effective force."
Berninger cited the original Napster's closing as a defeat for open Internet advocates, even though more than 60 million people used the download service. "That's enough people to elect a president, but not enough to stop Napster from shutting down," he says.
Berninger, who cofounded the VON Coalition and a handful of voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) companies, has organized rallies promoting technology and opposing VOIP regulation. He hopes to rally the pro-Internet troops with events similar to the ICC every couple of months. A second event, focusing on an Internet commons treaty, is scheduled for May in Washington.
ICC participants debated issues ranging from Internet architecture to media concentration, from VOIP regulation to e-voting. Richard Stallman, leader of the free software movement, called in from a hospital bed and urged all encyclopedias, dictionaries, and learning materials to be distributed for free.
"If they aren't free, we should make (alternatives) and make the cost ones obsolete," Stallman told the ICC.
Stallman also railed against the current state of democracy in the U.S., saying public opinion takes a back seat to lobbying in all but a few major issues.
"We are in an era when democracy exists in form but not in substance," he added. "The sickness of democracy takes away the legitimacy of government and its actions."
Primed to Fight
While few participants went as far as Stallman--the audience even included some suit-wearers--ICC organizers did send out this notice before the event:
"The attack is wide and pervasive. Even our right to own and use computers inside our homes and offices, is under attack. The time has come to assemble and declare our rights. We call upon advocates and organizers, authors and coworkers, readers and singers, politicians and students, grandmothers and children of all ages ... to join us."
Ian Peter, an Australian Internet pioneer, had a choice of attending the ICC or a United Nations summit on Internet governance in New York.
"What goes on in this room is far more important to the future of the Internet than what's going on in New York," Peter told ICC attendees.
The first ICC was a big success in getting Internet activists who'd never met to talk to each other and take the first steps toward presenting a united front, says Jay Sulzberger, who helped organize the ICC event and is a member of New Yorkers for Fair Use.
"They are fighting on different fronts, but it's all the same war," Sulzberger says of attendees. "There are a lot of agencies and a lot of senators and congressmen who'd be glad to hear from a lot of groups at once."
Sulzberger says he believes ICC will be the first step into organizing a more effective voice for Internet freedom advocates. "I think that things have changed," he says of the event's effect. "There's cooperation, there's the hard line, and there's going on the offensive."