Wired for change: Internet access in the pursuit of justice

The Wired for Change event that took place this past Wednesday at the Ford Foundation was a jam-packed day filled with heavy hitters ranging from Bill Clinton, who made a surprise appearance to Tim Berners Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web as well as Arianna Huffington, John Maeda, and Damian Kulash amongst others. Coming on the heels of Hillary Clinton’s February 15 speech about Internet freedom, the conference’s focus was to engage in a dialogue about digital rights and the role of technology to facilitate innovation and positive change.

“Will technology’s arc bend toward justice?” Luis Ubinas, Ford Foundation’s President, asked to kick off the day. In a panel moderated by co-founder of BlackPlanet.com Omar Wasow, NAACP President and CEO Ben Jealous, former ZipCar CEO Robin Chase, World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee and Witness Executive Director Yvette Alberdingk Thijm responded, discussing access to broadband as a basic human right and a ripe opportunity to affect social change. How does access to the Internet funnel directly into innovation (crisis mapping and car sharing platforms) as well as activism (the role of social media in Egypt and Tunisia). The conversation also touched upon net neutrality and the digital divide in our own backyard.

Salient points were made by each panelist:

  • Tim Berners-Lee: “The Internet should be neutral” without policing from government or corporations. “I am generally optimistic about the Internet but whenever things get decentralized in any way, then you have a problem.”
  • Yvette Alberdingk Thijm: “Just providing the tools isn’t enough.” Access to technology is important for advocacy, but even more important is providing the skills people need to use the tools most effectively. People also need to be trained to use the tools safely so that they won’t implicate themselves or others.
  • Ben Jealous: We need to adopt platforms that are being used successfully outside the U.S., like Ushahidi, inside the U.S. “The Internet is the town square” and it’s all about who is in the square. Hopefully those in the square will bend technology’s arc toward justice.
  • Robin Chase: “After I fed and clothed a person, I’d give them the Internet…Innovators need free or low cost tools to show their cool new stuff.” With the technology she had available, Chase didn’t have to compete with GM or Ford when she started ZipCar.

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