Among the throngs of tech celebrities at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival in Austin going on this week, Napster co-founder and former Facebook president Sean Parker is an expected face. Less expected: Former Vice President Al Gore.
Yet both men took to the stage on Monday night together to engage one another in a discussion on the transformative effect they believe the Internet is having on American politics. More pointedly, they were there to discuss Parker’s latest investments, including a startup company called Votizen, which was founded in 2009, and into which he and several celebrities recently invested $750,000 and a total $2.25 million to date.
Votizen, which allows users to add their social networking contacts and see who among their friends is a registered voter, as well as to organize virtual canvassing activities, has spent the past three years painstakingly constructing the first-ever database of all of America’s 200 million registered voters, and eventually plans to host real-time data for the 800,000 elected offices throughout the country, down to the local level.
Check the conversation out in this video uploaded by a member of the audience.
Gore’s most memorable line from the event was that he thought “democracy has been hacked,” by money and special interest spending, and that the fix was to be found in the Internet tools, specifically the crowdsourcing campaign and voter lookup activities offered by Votizen and another community organizing startup he’s invested in, called NationBuilder, which allow users to create their own “nations,” i.e. communities.
Parker attempted to channel his Napster experience, stating: “The Internet is good at taking money out of old industries…my hope is Internet can do for politics what it did for copyright.” He also termed the Internet’s successful, collective rise up against the federal anti-piracy legislation known as SOPA (The Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (The PROTECT IP Act) the “Nerd Spring,” making reference to the so-called “Arab Spring” uprisings throughout the Middle East and North Africa almost a year ago to date.
Both speakers received wide applause from the crowd of assembled journalists, programmers and startup founders, including Votizen co-founder and CEO David Binetti, who flew in just for the talk, following the birth of his daughter on Wednesday.
“Clearly any time you have the Vice President and Sean Parker speaking about your favorably about your project, that’s a really incredible, gratifying thing,” Binetti told TPM in a phone interview from South by Southwest.
“There were a number of things [Gore] spoke about, ranging from the outside influence of money in politics to how much time elected officials spend on their jobs raising money, which he pointed to and said ‘social media can help with that.’”
Binetti knows firsthand the power of the Web: Back in 2007, Binetti launched USA.gov, the official online portal for the federal government.
However, its worth noting that Gore was not his own choice in the 2000 elections. Binetti’s own Votizen profile reveals he voted for George W. Bush in that seminal election.
“It’s true, I voted for Bush in 2000,” Binetti told TPM, chuckling. “But I support any politician who wants to help improve the system. I fully support Vice President Gore in his efforts here. Anything he wants to do regarding using the Internet to help people connect in a more democratic way I support. I didn’t agree with all of his policies back then, but he’s certainly always had my respect.”
Binetti said that he was unconcerned about driving away any potential users to either his or Gore’s politics. He pointed to Votizen’s staff, noting that the company is made up of a wide variety of political persuasions, including those who, variously, support Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Gary Johnson, Buddy Roemer and President Obama. (Though notably no Rick Santorum supporters.)
“The company is all over the map, and that’s exactly the way it should be,” Binetti said.
Asked whether Gore, who despite memorably claiming to have taken the initiative in creating the Internet, also co-owns more traditional cable channel Current, would become an investor in Votizen, Binetti played coy.
“I don’t have anything to report at this time,” Binetti said, “But I would certainly welcome continuing that conversation.”
Correction: This article originally stated that Votizen recently raised $450,000, when in fact the company raised $750,000 in a recent round of funding. In addition, this post originally repeated the erroneous recalling of an Al Gore statement attributing the invention of the Internet to himself. In fact, Gore said he “took the initiative in creating the Internet.” This post has since been corrected in copy. We regret the errors.