The Second Internet Revolution: Bringing Democracy Up To Speed

Global Report on Technology and the Economy

18 Years Providing Weekly Foresight

SNS Subscriber Edition   •   Volume 17, Issue 17   •   Week of April 28, 2014


By Lori Steele Contorer

Mobile and Messaging in Democracy

Civil engagement has had a new face and a growing effectiveness in the world of the first Internet revolution – the Mobile Revolution. We all watched in awe as first there were massive protests in Iran over what was perceived to be a fraudulent election in 2009. In spite of the US government saying it would not engage, Twitter famously elected not to take its site down for maintenance during this period so the voices of innocent Iranian citizens could be heard in real time, as their cries for justice and democracy were met with violence and death.

This was followed by the Arab Spring, beginning in December 2010. Rulers had been forced from power in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, and civil uprisings had erupted throughout the region. The effective use of social media to organize demonstrations and rallies, and communicate in the face of state-led repression, was instrumental to these efforts. Twitter and Facebook, seemingly overnight, changed how citizens engage in some of the world's most oppressed and most dangerous "democracies."

Now civic engagement startups are all the rage, many being funded with many millions of dollars by big names in Silicon Valley. Even Napster co-founder Sean Parker, with his dream team formed from companies past, has stepped up with the launch of Brigade – a company, according to Politico, "designed to combat a lack of political engagement and interest in all levels of government across America." That's exciting. Political engagement and interest in all levels of government are vital to any democracy.

The Second Internet Revolution, and Real Change in Democracy

The Mobile Revolution, and engagement through communication and conversation, are only first steps. Real systemic change in democratic countries can only come about through what Steve Case calls the "second Internet revolution." This second Internet revolution can bring the benefits of Software as a Service (SaaS) to the world's largest enterprise: government.

At the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2013, Steve projected:

"The next 25 years won't be focused on creating more Internet or social-media companies; it will be about using Internet and mobile technology to change education, healthcare, government, and energy."

Think about that. The Internet is no longer an unknown and potentially treacherous new horizon over which only the most innovative and daring may cross. Having reached the final stages in the Diffusion of Innovations, in which even the late majority and laggards (Rogers 1962) are engaging and benefiting every day, the Internet is becoming more like a utility infrastructure which facilitates efficiencies and new processes than a playground for risk-seeking adventurers.

Most everyone, every day, engages with friends, media, and work via mobile. Habits are easily learned and hard to break, and people who experience daily the pleasure and ease of state-of-the art mobile communications and administrative processes in their personal lives are then extremely frustrated when they are stuck using cumbersome and antiquated technology platforms in other dimensions of their lives. Government is ready for change.

$3.9 Billion on Outdated Election Technology

Before I share real-life cases of how advances in technology have made real and substantive improvements in democracy and elections and what's next  let's remember why actual elections, not just social civic engagement, are the linchpin for making democracy work.

Fourteen years ago, the world watched in disbelief when the election for the presidency of the United States of America was turned over to the US Supreme Court to decide. It became clear at that time that one of the most advanced nations in the world was using severely outdated processes and "technologies" for one of the most important business processes in the world. So Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002, which provided $3.9 billion to states to invest in technology to improve elections. That was the first time in history that the federal government would fund election systems for states.

In the early- to mid-2000s, innovation was everywhere! Amazon and eBay were changing the way we shop; Citibank and eTrade were transforming the way we bank and invest. Salesforce was changing the way businesses win and service customers, with its "No Software" motto. Even Bill Gates, a pioneer and leader of the installed software model, proclaimed that "the next sea change that is upon us is a tectonic shift from single-use hardware and licensed software that organizations install and maintain, to Software as a Service."

There didn't seem to be a mission-critical industry left on earth that would consider installed software or purpose-built hardware as the way to solve modern business challenges, let alone promote innovation. But taking into account the entire global economy, we were probably only at the early-adopter stage in the S curve. And governments remained at the far right in the categories of adopters. "State of the art" technologies in elections in the early 2000s were 30- to 40-year-old, purpose-built optical-scan and touch-screen voting machines and customized installed software for registration systems. So the vast majority of that $3.9 billion was spent within a few years, on antiquated, purpose-built hardware and customized installed software packages.

Where did that decision take the elections industry?