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Sean Parker and Al Gore discuss ‘Occupy Democracy’ and the ‘hacking’ of U.S. politics at South by Southwest

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AUSTIN, Tex. — Most years at the technology portion of South by Southwest festival here, the buzz follows location-based apps, games or communication tools. This year, though, a political undercurrent has charged the event.

Nowhere was that more apparent than in a late addition to the lineup: a conversation between Al Gore and Napster co-founder Sean Parker. In an hour-long talk, the two men discussed a political system Gore said was “hacked.”

“I’d like to see a new movement called Occupy Democracy,” Gore said as Parker nodded in agreement and a packed auditorium of technology attendees cheered and applauded.

The two men discussed what they said was the intrusion of big business into the democratic process, and their hopes for the Internet to take power away from the political industry.

“The Internet is incredibly good at taking money out of other industries,” Parker said, referring in part to the music industry whose sales have plummeted over the past decade, in part because of music sites such as Parker’s Napster. “My hope is the Internet can do for the political process what it did for the copyright industries.”

Parker is working with three companies -- Causes, NationBuilder and Votizen -- that he said are just the first online tools to help connect voters and political candidates without the interference of money.

Votizen works to identify politically active voters to provide candidates a way to “harvest” voters without having to spend billions of dollars on television advertising, Parker said.

David Binetti, the founder of Votizen, watched the talk from the front row of a crowded auditorium. “The political industry is a $10-billion-a-year industry,” he said shortly after the panel. “It has grown 25 percent year after year for the past 50 years. [Political spending] never goes down. It always goes up. ... The money needs to be taken out of it.”

The role of money in politics has become a hot issue this election campaign, in part to the focus on the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission ruling, which allowed unlimited corporate and union spending in elections.

Gore gave a series of impassioned mini-speeches throughout the panel, enough so that some audience members joked on Twitter, “Once a politician, always a politician.” He touched on his desire to see Citizens United overturned with a constitutional amendment; his belief that a Wiki-democracy site could help lessen special interest groups’ impact on politics; and the power of online protests as evidenced by the Egyptian revolt in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Bank of America reversing the card fees and the Stop Online Piracy Act.

Parker, on the other hand, tempered Gore’s enthusiasm saying the SOPA defeat was the first sign of the Internet’s ability to unite behind a cause, from an otherwise “passive and docile” industry.

Both men agreed that the Internet had far to go in becoming a dominant force in politics, saying that although it will play a role in the 2012 election, television is still the main tool for campaigns to use. Parker said he hoped that by the next presidential election the Internet would leverage more control.

“I’m optimistic in thinking that the hacking, the co-opting of mass media in order to control the system, can be remedied by the rise of new mediums,” Parker said.

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