Opinion: Diverse web coalition asks McCain, Obama to alter debates


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An informal national coalition of Internet pioneers and users with widely divergent political views will issue a letter Friday morning calling on John McCain and Barack Obama to open the remaining debates completely to the public domain.

As Lawrence Lessig, a law professor and letter-signer put it, ‘Copyright, in my view, is essential and important, in some places. This isn’t one.’

The letter, which was obtained exclusively by The Ticket tonight, will be signed by such disparate Internet names as Glenn Reynolds of, Craig Newmark of Craigslist, Markos Moulitsas of and Arianna Huffington of HuffingtonPost.

The letter also asks the two major candidates to insist on a new method of choosing debate questions.


A complete list of the signers and the full letter text is published after the jump; click the Read more line below to display them.

Currently, the job of designing and choosing questions is left to the media host. During the primary season some debates chose from questions submitted online, but the letter writers say those chosen were ‘gimmicky and not hard-hitting enough.’

They prefer use of bubble-up Internet technology, which they call ‘the essence of the internet as we know it.’ In effect, online users submit the questions and then vote on their favorites, pushing the ...

... most popular to the top of the list. Debate questions would be taken from the top 25 vote-getters.

In part, the letter says:

‘This is a historic election. The signers of this letter don’t agree on every issue. But we do agree that in order for Americans to make the best decision for president, we need open debates that are ‘of the people’ in the ways described above. You have the power to make that happen, and we ask you to do so.’

The Presidential Commission on Debates, as The Ticket has noted, organizes the quadrennial rhetorical showdowns but is not known for its rapid embrace of technology. It has, for example, yet to construct a video archive of memorable debate moments since its founding in 1987, which, BTW, was before such expressions as LOL, OMG and :-).


This year the commission announced a live-streaming partnership with MySpace, which was touted as the hottest new thing. Watch the debates on your laptops. Whoop-de-doo!

‘Just because something is new doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to include it in the debates,’ a spokeswoman explained.

So the letter-writers are going around the commission of relics directly to the candidates. ‘We’re experiencing a great movement towards networked, grassroots democracy,’ said Newmark. ‘And anything citizens can do to promote that is good for the country.

‘The Open Debate Coalition principles mark a significant step forwards in that direction, where American citizens become a bigger part of the democratic process.’

He made these remarks in an actual e-mail, which is an electronic means of transmitting a message that can travel long distances real quickly. A lot of people, even non-BFFs, use it nowadays.

-- Andrew Malcolm

Open Debate Coalition Letter

Dear Senator McCain and Senator Obama,

We are a coalition of people and organizations across the ideological spectrum asking you to make this year’s presidential debates more “of the people” than ever before by bringing them more fully into the Internet age.

Specifically, we ask you to embrace these two “open debate” principles for the 2008 debates:

1) The presidential debates are for the benefit of the public. Therefore, the right to speak about the debates ought to be “owned” by the public, not controlled by the media.

During the primaries, a large coalition asked that media companies release rights to presidential debate video to ensure that key moments can be legally blogged about, shared on YouTube, or otherwise shared without fear of legal repercussion.

CNN, ABC, and NBC agreed to release video rights. But one media company threatened legal action against Senator McCain for using a debate clip to spread a message. Such control over political speech is inconsistent with our democracy.

We therefore call upon both candidates to commit to a principle that whenever you debate publicly, the raw footage of that debate will be dedicated to the public domain. Those in charge of the video feed should be directed to make it free for anyone to use.

2) “Town hall” Internet questions should be chosen by the people, not solely by the media.

The two campaigns recently said of the October 7 debate, “In the spirit of the Town Hall, all questions will come from the audience (or Internet), and not the moderator.” We agree with the spirit of this statement.

In order to ensure that the Internet portion of this debate is true bottom-up democracy, the format needs to allow the public to help select the questions in addition to asking them.

This cycle’s YouTube debates were a milestone for Internet participation in presidential debates. But they put too much discretion in the hands of gatekeepers. 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. We’d propose debate organizers utilize existing bubble-up voting technology and choose Internet questions from the top 25 that bubbled up. We ask you to instruct the October 7 debate planners to use bubble-up technology in this fashion.

This is a historic election. The signers of this letter don’t agree on every issue. But we do agree that in order for

Americans to make the best decision for president, we need open debates that are “of the people” in the ways described above. You have the power to make that happen, and we ask you to do so.

Thank you for your willingness to take these ideas to heart. If you have any questions, please contact:


Lawrence Lessig – Professor, Stanford Law School & Founder, Center for Internet and Society

Glenn Reynolds – Professor, University of Tennessee Law, and founder of blog

Craig Newmark – Founder, Craigslist

Jimmy Wales – Founder, Wikipedia

David Kralik – Director of Internet Strategy, Newt Gingrich’s American Solutions

Eli Pariser – Executive Director, Political Action

Adam Green – Director of Strategic Campaigns, Political Action

Mindy Finn – Republican strategist, former Mitt Romney Online Director

Patrick Ruffini – Republican consultant, Bush/Cheney 2004 eCampaign Director

Arianna Huffington – Founder, Huffington Post

Markos Moulitsas – Founder,

Jon Henke – New media consultant, including for Fred Thompson, George Allen, and Senate Republican Caucus

Mike Krempasky – Founder of

Matt Stoller – Founder/Editor,

James Rucker – Executive Director,

Robert Greenwald – President, BraveNewFilms

Kim Gandy – President, National Organization for Women

Carl Pope – Executive Director, Sierra Club

Micah Sifry – Co-Founder, Personal Democracy Forum and

Shari Steele, Executive Director, Electronic Frontier Foundation

Josh Silver – Executive Director, Free Press

Carl Malamud – Founder, Public.Resource.Org

Roger Hickey – Co-Director, Campaign for America’s Future