Al Gore: 'Our democracy has been hacked'

Former VP visits Southland to talk tech, politics and creating a digital Magna Carta

Former Vice President of the United States Al Gore spoke Tuesday at the Southland Southern Culture and Technology Conference in Nashville on the convergence of technology and politics, and the fate of American democracy.

"Our democracy has been hacked in the United States," Gore said. "The operating system has been taken over and it no longer serves the purposes our founders intended it serve."

When there were low entry barriers to public conversation, Gore said, a book like Thomas Paine's Common Sense "became the Harry Potter of the late 1700s." But today, he added, Paine would need a small fortune to have the same impact: "Now there are gatekeepers that bar the entry way to the public conversation, and that has given those with great wealth an ability to dominate the conversation."

Gore said he believed the Internet could improve communication equality and restore American democracy, and called on digital business leaders to develop a "digital Magna Carta."

"Some of the most important digital businesses ought to be in a position to work with the people in asserting a digital Magna Carta that does provide protection for a form of net neutrality," he said. "But in order for businesses to play the role they should play, they need to pay attention and correct the abuses of digital privacy that are ongoing in the business of security."

Gore also touched on numerous other subjects, including:

• Steve Jobs and tech failures

"He grew stronger and wiser over the years. When he failed at Apple — which is harsh word, but his board pushed him out, and he started NeXT and Pixar. In Steve's case, the experience of failure really caused him to dig deep, that's my impression, and he learned some lessons that you can't learn any other way. In my own life, I've learned that you grow the most when you go through difficult and painful experiences. And of course in the tech world, failure is definitely a part of it."

• Capitalism versus public investment

"After the Berlin Wall came down and communism collapsed, there was a bit of triumphalism among those of us happy that the American system was triumphant. And all of a sudden, the long-held, passionate belief of some Americans began to say, 'Capitalism is so good it can take over some of the decisions that have been made in democracy.' In some areas that makes sense, but in other areas it does not.

"There are public goods. Education is not going to adequately provided only by the private sector. Public transportation, health care — we may get to a time where digital health care brings out new models, and I hope so, but we have rising levels of inequality. That's not an 'Occupy Wall Street' slogan, that's a fact, and this is happening in almost every country in the world… We the people have the right to work together to allocate resources, including tax money, for good purposes, but when the systems that allocate that money and design the policies are dominated with those with wealth and power, than naturally, the average citizen begins to get very upset and suspicious."

• Data collection and digital privacy

"I was dismayed that [the NSA] had gone as far as it had. It is not right and it has to stop. There will be legislation, and I hope it goes far enough, but we have to restore the freedom of the Internet… Government, that's one threat, but businesses are also collecting way more information than they should. We now have a stalker economy where customers become products. Every time we collectively have had a choice between convenience and privacy or security, we've chosen convenience. But we are rapidly approaching a gag point."

• Whether Edward Snowden is a traitor or hero

"I don't put him in either one of those categories, but I'll be candid. If you set up a spectrum, I would push it more away from the traitor side, and I'll tell you why. He clearly violated the law, but what he revealed in the course of violating important laws included violations of the United States Constitution that were way more serious than the crimes he committed. In the course of violating important laws, he also provided an important service."