Former Vice President Al Gore and Napster co-founder Sean Parker speak during South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.
John Nowak/CNN
Former Vice President Al Gore and Napster co-founder Sean Parker speak during South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.

Story highlights

Al Gore: 'Our democracy is being hacked' and the Web can help

Gore and Napster founder Sean Parker spoke at South by Southwest Interactive

Both say money is too prevalent in politics and the Web needs to balance that

Parker founded Votizen to help turn social networks into political activism

Austin, Texas CNN —  

When speaking to the tech-savvy attendees of South by Southwest Interactive, it doesn’t hurt to lead with a Web reference – even if you’re the former vice president.

“Our democracy has been hacked,” said Al Gore. “It no longer works, in the main, to serve the interests of our people.”

Gore joined Sean Parker, the mind behind Napster and founding president of Facebook, on a two-man panel at the digital festival Monday during which both decried the influence of money in politics and pointed to the Internet as the answer.

Parker, whose Napster nearly single-handedly started a revolution in how people acquire and consume music, alluded to his past during the hour-long talk before an overflow crowd of about 5,000.

“The Internet is incredibly good at taking money out of existing industries,” he told the capacity audience of more than 3,000. “My hope is that the Internet can do for the political process what it did for the copyright industries.”

Parker is a backer and board member of Votizen, a site started in 2010 to help users parlay their social networks into political activism.

In 2007, he also co-founded Causes, a site that applies similar principles to fundraising for nonprofits and has raised $40 million for over 27,000 organizations.

Gore, who in addition to his well-documented environmental activism is a technology investor and founder of Current TV, pointed to recent examples of Web-enabled activism – from the Web’s role in democratic reform in Egypt to successful protests of the Susan G. Komen Foundation after it pulled funding for Planned Parenthood.

But he and Parker noted that, in the next generation of Web activism, there needs to be a way to strengthen engagement beyond merely putting a digital signature on an online petition or clicking “like” on Facebook.

“It’s not enough to take that small action online,” Parker said. “A referral or notification is not really the same thing as showing up at a protest or actually opening up your wallet.”

While blasting the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case that allowed for big-money “super PACs” in political campaigns – “a Supreme Court I have not always agreed with,” said the 2000 presidential nominee – Gore said that successful political activism online can decrease the influence of money from special interests.

“When we win the conversation, then the pressure can be put on the politicians and elected officials to do the right thing,” Gore said.

Parker said the way online communities rose up to ultimately derail the Stop Online Piracy Act (which many felt would have clamped down on Web freedom) is heartening, even if he’s not sure exactly what form future efforts will take. (He called apathy in tech circles “somewhat pathetic” before that, but that SOPA “awakened that sleeping giant.”

“There are a lot of really smart hackers in this audience,” Parker said. “We need to put our heads together and take control of this system … before the slow-thinking incumbents … know what’s happening.”