CFP08 trip report (2): Dear Potus 08

Part 2 of a series; please see CFP08: trip report for part 1

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If the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy community wrote a letter to the next President of the United States about our priorities for technology policy, what would we say — and how would we get him or her to read it?

There’s only one way to find out.

— from the original, now spam-infested, announcement

At the end of the opening plenary session, I followed up a question from Linda Misek-Falkoff (“Respectful interfaces”) by building on her point about accessibility and asking how it was possible for all of us to get involved in a way that helps broaden the dialogue about technology policy to include everybody, not just the voices that are usually heard. Chuck and Danny both agreed with the goal and thought that the CFP community was well-positioned to help here: paraphrasing, they said “build it, and if they come we’ll listen”.

Well then.

This question was in fact a setup for Dear Potus 08, a series of collaboratively-written open letters to the presidential candidates and (eventually) next president of the United States. Our goal for the conference was an initial letter, basically calling for more and better discussion of technology policy in the election campaign, and an initial list of a handful of high-priority areas that we’ll be discussing more details. Just to make sure it wasn’t a surprise, I talked briefly with Chuck right after the panel and Danny the next day, and as expected they liked the idea — and had some excellent feedback; which, along with the aforementioned chaos caused our plans to mutate. Um, evolve.

We officially kicked things off at the Wednesday night conference dinner. With the one exception of Susy Struble not being there (the letter to the president was her idea to begin with, but she had to cancel at the last minute) it couldn’t have gone any better. People clustering together for dinner formed naturally diverse groups … and it was the only collaborative work that most people did the entire conference, so pent-up energy burst forward. We had hit a pretty good level of structure and open-endedness in our design for the brainstorming; and where what we had laid out was too restrictive, people took matters into their own hands — which was great, coming up with suggestions for celebrity endorsements and a DRM mascot took things far beyond what we imagined was possible! Results here; well worth reading.

There was a magic moment right after I laid out the overall schedule, goals, and instructions for the evening, where I said something like “so let’s get started” and every table simultaneously burst into conversation. Looks like I’ve learned a fair amount about event design from people like John Sweeney, Kathy Cramer, and the whole Ad Astra crew 🙂

Over the next 36 hours or so we badgered people to put the information up on the wiki, and then distilled it down and refined letter. It was the first time we had tried something like this, so there were a few rough ends; Nancy’s Inner Space‘s description of the agreement process as “auto polo” is cruel but fair. Much of the feedback came in-person, me walking around with my laptop and saying “whaddya think?”; we also get some email feedback, and a bunch of edits and comments on the wiki, but the process was far from perfect. Still, I think the end result is very impressive.

We presented the letter right before Clay Shirky’s closing keynote on Friday, and started circulating it for signatures, picking up close to 30. (If you’d like to sign on, please do, either on the blog thread or on the wiki!) We already have our first coverage, in a blog entry by Renato Cruz on Estadã and a story by Elise Ackerman in the San Jose Mercury News, although rather embarassingly the passages she quotes wound up edited out of the final copy. [Oops. Perils of wikis :-)] The conference as a whole has gotten some really good coverage, with a Washington Post story today joining the ones on TechPresident, Wired, the LA Times, Ars Technica, dKos, Openleft, Slashdot … so it’s a promising situation.

We’ll be sending the letter to the campaigns next week, and look forward to hearing back from them. In any case, we’ll be following up with additional discussions on topics including internet safety, identity theft, copyright and patents in a remix/P2P culture, access to knowlege (including the digital and broadband divides), and privacy. We’re still working out the technology and hosting details, as well as the timeframe for the next broad discussion (Septemberish?); please track the CFP 08: Technology Policy blog for updates.

The Dear Potus 08 project is pretty ambitious in that it has several major goals: help catalyze year-round participation by the CFP community, help to broaden and diversify CFP’s audiences, and have an impact on technology policy discussions between now and the election. [The good news is that if even one of those happens, it’ll be a major success.] It’s still early days, so to be determined how it’ll work out, but I think we’ve got a decent chance. When I was at Microsoft, I led a half-dozen collaborative writing experiments, and it gets easier and easier for a group over time. With a short timeframe, and no experience whatsoever, the initial letter was the biggest risk … and it came out extremely well. Yay us!