Coalition Wants Debates More Friendly to Voters, Web

With a couple of changes, upcoming U.S. presidential debates could be more friendly to both voters and to the Web, a diverse coalition of bloggers, political consultants and advocates said.

The Open Debate Coalition, including both Democrats and Republicans, called on presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain to change some of the rules of the debates in a way that would encourage voters to submit and select questions over the Web and would allow Web sites to redistribute video of the debates without copyright concerns.

The first debate between McCain and Obama is Friday evening at the University of Mississippi. Two more are scheduled in October, as well as one vice presidential debate.

In a letter to the two campaigns, unveiled late Thursday, the coalition asked the two major presidential candidates to allow the public not only to submit questions but also to select which questions are asked in an upcoming debate. Using the Web, the public should be able to vote on which submitted questions are asked, the letter said.

A debate scheduled for Oct. 7 in Nashville, Tennessee, allows questions from the public, but the moderator has the power to select which questions to use. CNN also allowed questions from YouTube users to be used in primary debates, but CNN staffers selected which questions were featured.

The YouTube debates "put too much discretion in the hands of gatekeepers," the letter said. "Many of the questions chosen by TV producers were considered gimmicky and not hard-hitting enough, and never would have bubbled up on their own. This 'bubble up' idea is the essence of the Internet as we know it. The best ideas rise to the top, and the wisdom of crowds prevails."

A truly open debate would allow the public to select the questions, added Mindy Finn, a Republican online strategist who signed the Open Debate Coalition letter. The YouTube debates took an important step forward, "but the media still chose the questions, leaving the people out [of] the process, again," she said. "It's not enough to feign interest in the people's opinion, you have to walk the walk by giving the voters the chance to see their most important questions asked, the ones that the greatest number of people care about. Otherwise, it's a faux open debate."

The coalition also called on the candidates to allow video from the debate to be released to the public domain. If copyright on the video isn't enforced, it would "ensure that key moments can be legally blogged about, shared on YouTube, or otherwise shared without fear of legal repercussion," the letter said.

After McCain used a clip from one of the primary debates in a campaign ad, the Fox network threatened to sue him. "Such control over political speech is inconsistent with our democracy," the letter said.

Three other networks agreed to release the video rights of primary debates after a group of Web pioneers asked them to. Some of the same people signed the new letter.

Among the people signing the request are Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford law professor and liberal technology commentator; Eli Pariser, executive director of liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org; Patrick Ruffini, a Republican consultant and director of President George Bush's 2004 e-campaign efforts; Mike Krempasky, cofounder of conservative blog RedState.com; David Kralik, director of Internet strategy for former Republican Congressman Newt Gingrich's American Solutions advocacy group; and Arianna Huffington, founder of the liberal Web site Huffington Post.

Lessig deserves credit for organizing this diverse group of people, said Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist.org.

"This election marks the beginning of the transition from top-down, big-money politics, to networked grassroots democracy," Newmark said. "Larry Lessig's a major player in this, bringing together people across a broad political spectrum to use the 'Net to open up the presidential debates."

Representatives of the McCain and Obama campaigns didn't respond to a request for comments on the coalition letter.

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