The Internet is changing how politics is conducted at every level, from local to national to global. Ten years ago, some predicted the online utopia of “everyone a pamphleteer.” It’s clear that the changes taking place on the Internet are more subtle than some anticipated, that they vary by place and context, and that the changes are not all good. Optimists argue that things are on the right track — that the development of the “networked public sphere” is, overall, a very positive thing for democratic institutions. Others are not so sure, pointing to the possible dystopia of citizens surrounding themselves with only the information they wish to hear, censors blocking important political speech at national borders, and a growing culture of surveillance on the web. Against this background, what types of interventions could ensure that the growing use of networked technologies helps to strengthen democracies rather than to undercut their development?

We’re talking about politics, in the company of John Palfrey (now in charge of the Law Library in Harvard, possibly one of the best jobs in the world?). He mentioned the Publius Project, which has a great set of essays worth reading, just launched this week – I downloaded a couple for my flight and wasn’t disappointed. Anyway, Palfrey is leading the session but has a cast of thousands (well, almost) in the audience to help out.

Kicking off, Palfrey discussed the media coverage of protests in Burma and how images were ‘getting out’ to the world, in different ways.

The Internet allows more speech from more people than ever before” – turning to Ethan Zuckerman for more (sitting in front of me, and – to his great credit – here despite just coming out of significant surgery), who talked about Global Voices and how it came out of Berkman work. This is the ‘generativity of the Net’ in action. Global Voices makes it possible for stories to get more attention than they would have…we’ve gone from international news being a supply problem to a demand problem. In response to a question from Palfrey (aka JP), Zuckerman specifically mentioned the blog of Salam Pax as something that illustrated the power of blogging (Zuckerman was initially sceptical); going forward, though, you see governments and corporations pushing back and trying to cut down access. A related issue is where attention comes from; Burma had already made headline news but how do you bring attention to stories that don’t have some attention already?

Over to John Kelly’s beautiful blogosphere maps, now. (See an older photo and discussion, here). Today, he’s discussing a map of the Farsi blogosphere, which illustrates types of blog and linking between them. Aha! Someone who I think is Vicki Nash from the Oxford Internet Institute (couple of rows behind me) asked Kelly to respond to Cass Sunstein’s argument (as published in and updated in 2.0, published last year) about echo chambers and people talking to themselves. Kelly responded that the data does show more interaction than is understood, and mentioned Benkler’s discussion of collaborative discussion as a more helpful one. Palfrey now steers the discussion back to the OpenNet Initiative, and Rob Faris joins the conversation. We’ve talked about circumvention and the use of the Flash drive as a way to avoid censorship, and social factors that act in concert with or alongside censorship.

Someone whose name I missed from the Sunlight Foundation spoke about the work they are doing, in particular the making available and/or analysis of data about how government works. It’s a wonderful site and you should check it out. They are still getting started but have created quite a resource already.

Finally, Yochai Benkler, from the very back of the room, was called upon to address the question, what should we study, and what should we do, for the next ten years? – a theme of the day so far. He mentioned in particular the move towards more rigorous research and the availability of data and resources that were not present in the initial stages of research in this field. The process of adoption and change goes on and this means that much, much more analysis is needed.

A coda from David Reed now on the power of groups. Never heard him talk before…”it’s the impact of the group not the existence of the group” that needs to be measured. And now we adjourn, back for more this afternoon…