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January 11, 2017

[liveblog][bkc] Kishonna Gray


Kishonna Gray [#KishonnaGray] is giving a Berkman-Klein [#BKCHarvard] Tuesday lunch talk . She’s an ass’t prof and ML King Scholar at MIT as well as being a fellow at BKC and the author of Race, Gender and Deviance in Xbox Live. She’s going to talk about a framework, Black Digital Feminism.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

She begins by saying, “I’ve been at a cross roads, personally and intellectually” over the Trump election, the death of black civilians at the hand of police, and the gaming controversies, including gamergate. How did we get to this point? And what point are we at? “What matters most in this moment?” She’s going to talk about the framework that helps her make sense of some of these things.

Imagine we’re celebrating the 50th birthday of the Berkman Klein Center (in 305 yrs or so)? What are we celebrating? The end of online harassment? The dismantling of heteronormative, white supremacy hierarchy? Are we telling survivor narratives?

She was moved by an article the day after the election, titled “Black women were the only ones who tried to save the world Tuesday night,” by Charles D. Ellison. She laughed at first, and retweeted it. She was “overwhelmed by the response of people who didn’t think black women have the capacity to do anything except make babies and collect welfare checks.” She recalled many women, including Sojourner Truth who spoke an important truth to a growing sense in the feminist movement that it was fundamentally a white movement. The norms are so common and hidden that when we notice them we ask how the women broke through the barriers rather than asking why the barriers were there in the first place. It’s as if these women are superhuman. But we need to ask why are there barriers in the first place? [This is a beautifully composed talk. I’m sorry to be butchering it so badly. It will be posted on line in a few days.

In 1869 Frederick Douglass argued that including women in the movement for the vote would reduce the chances of the right to vote being won for black men. “White womenhood has been central in defining white masculinity. ” E.g., in Birth of a Nation, white women need protection. Self-definition is the core of intersectionality. Masculinity has mainly protected its own interests and its own fragility, not women. It uses the protection of women to showcase its own dominance.

“Why do we have to insert our own existences into spaces? Why are we not recognized?.” The marginalized are no longer accepting their marginzalization. For example,look at black women’s digital practices.

Black women have used digital involvement to address marginalization, to breach the boundaries of what’s “normal.” Often that is looked upon as them merely “playing around” with tech. The old frameworks meant that black women couldn’t enter the digital space as who they actually are.

Black Digital Feminism has three elements:

1. Social structural oppression of technology and virtual spaces. Many digital spaces are dominated by assumptions that they are color-blind. Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name are attempts to remind us that blackness is not an intrusion.

2. Intersectional oppressions experience in virtual spaces. Women must work to dismantle the interlocking structures of oppression. Individuals experience oppression in different ways and we don’t want a one-size approach. E.g., the “solidarity is for white women” hashtag is seen as an expression of black women being angry, but it is a reminder that feminism has too often been assumed to be a white issue first.

3. The distinctness of the virtual feminist community. Black Digital Feminism privileges women’s ways of knowing. “NotYourAsianSidekick” is rooted in the radical Asian woman tradition, insisting that they control their own identity. Black women, and others, reject the idea that feminism is the same for all women, disregarding the different forms of oppression women are subject to based upon their race, ethnicity, etc. Women have used social media for social change and to advance critical activism and feminism.

The tenets of Black Digital Feminism cannot detach from the personal, communal, or political, which sets it part from techno- and cyber-feminism.

These new technologies are not creating anything. They are providing an outlet. “These groups have never been voiceless. The people in power simply haven’t been listening.” The digital amplifies these voices.


Q: With the new administration, should we be thinking differently?

A: We need to identify the commonalities. Isolated marches won’t do enough. We need to find a way to bring communities together by figuring out what is the common struggle against structural oppression. Black women sacrificed to support Trump, forgetting the “super-predator” stuff from Hillary, but other groups didn’t make equivalent sacrifices.

Q: Does it mean using hashtags differently?

A: This digital culture is only one of many things we can do. We can’t forget the physical community, connecting with people. There are models for doing this.

Q: Did Net Neutrality play a role in enabling the Black community to participate? Do we need to look at NN from a feminist perspective…NN as making every packet have the same weight.

NN was key for enabling Black Lives Matter because the gov’t couldn’t suppress that movement’s language, its speech.

Q: Is this perceived as a danger insider the black feminist movement?

A: Tech isn’t neutral, is the idea. It lets us do what we need to do.

Q: Given the work you’ve done on women finding pleasure in spaces (like the Xbox) where they’re not expected to be found, what do you think about our occupying commercial spaces?

A: I’m a lifelong gamer and I get asked how I can play where there aren’t players — or developers — who look like me. I started the practice of highlighting the people who are there. We’re there, but we’re not noticed. E.g., Pew Research showed recently that half of gamers are women. The overwhelming population of console gamers are black and brown men. We really have to focus on who is in the spaces, and seek them out. My dissertation focused on finding these people, and finding their shared stories: not being noticed or valued. But we should take the extra steps to make sure we locate them. Some people are going to call 2016 the year of the black gamer, games with black protagonists. This is due to a push from marginalized games. The resistance is paying off. Even the Oscars So White has paid off in a more diverse Golden Globes nominees set.

Q: You navigate between feminist theory and observational work. How did the latter shape the former?

A: When I learned about ethnography I thought it was the most beautiful thing ever created — being immersed in a community and let them tell their own stories. But when it came time to document that, I realized why we sometimes consider ethnography to be voyeuristic and exploitative. When transcribing, I was expected to “clean up” the speech. “Hell no,” she said. E.g. she left “dem” as “dem,” not “them.” “I refer to people as narrators, not ‘research participants.'” They’re part of the process. She showed them the chapter drafts. E.g., she hasn’t published all her Ferguson work because she wants to make sure that she “leaves the place better.” You have to stay true to the transformative, liberatory practices that we say we’re doing.” She’s even been criticized for writing too plainly, eschewing academic jargon. “I wanted to make sure that a community that let me into its space understood every word that I wrote.”

Q: There’s been debate about the people who lead the movement. E.g., if I’m not black, I am not best suited to lead the movement in the fight for those rights. OTOH, if we want to advance the rights of women, we have to move the whole society with us.

A: What you’re saying is important. I stopped caring about hurting peole’s feelings because if they’re devoted to the work that needs to be done, they’ve checked their feelings, their fragility, at the door. There is tons of work for allies to do. If it’s a real ally dedicated to the work, they’ll understand. There’s so much work to do. And Trump isn’t even the president yet.

Q: About the application of Black Digital Feminism to the law. (Intersectionality started in law journals.)

A: It’s hard to see how it translates into actual policy, especially now. I don’t know how we’ll push back against what’s to come. E.g., we know evaluations of women are usually lower than of men. So when are we going to stop valuing the evaluations so highly? At the bottom of my evaluations, I write, “Just so you know, these evaluations are filtered through my black woman’s body.”

Q: What do we get things like”#IamMichelle”, which is like the “I am Spartacus” in the movie Spartacus?

A: It depends on the effect it has. I focus on marginalized folks, and their sense of empowerment and pride. There’s some power there, especially in localized communities.

Q: How can white women be supportive?

A: You’ve to go get your people, the white women who voted. What have you done to change the thinking of the women you know who voted for Trump? That’s where it has to begin. You have to first address your own circle. You may not be able to change them, but you can’t ignore them. That’s step one.

Q: I always like your work because you hearken back to a rich pedigree of black feminism. But the current moment is distinct. E.g., the issues are trans-national. So we need new visions for what we want the future. What is the future that we’re fighting for? What does the digital contribute to that vision?

A: It’s important to acknowledge what’s the same. E.g., the death of black people by police is part of the narrative of lynching. The structural and institutional inequalities are the same. Digital tools let us address this differently. BLM is no different from what happened with Rodney King. What future are we fighting for? I guess I haven’t articulated that. I don’t know how we get there. We should first ask how we transform our own spaces. I don’t want the conversation to get to big. The conservation should be small enough and digestible. We don’t want people to feel helpless.

Q: If I’m a man who asks about Black Digital Feminism [which he is], where can I learn more?

You can go to my Web site: And the Berkman Klein community is awesome and ready to go to work.

Q: You write about the importance of claiming identity online. Early on, people celebrated the fact that you could go online without a known identity. Especially now, how do you balance the important task of claiming identity and establishing solidarity with your smaller group, and bonding with your allies in a larger group? Do we need to shift the balance?

A: I haven’t figured out how to create that balance. The communities I’m in are still distinct. When Mike Brown was killed, I realized how distinct the anti-gamergate crowd was from the BLM. These are not opposing fights. They’re not so distinct that we can’t fight both at the same times. I ended up working with both, and got me thinking about how to bridge them. But I haven’t figured out how to bring them together.

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November 22, 2016

[liveblog][bkc] Scott Bradner: IANA: Important, but not for what they do"

I’m at a Berkman Klein [twitter: BKCHarvard] talk by Scott Bradner about IANA, the Internet Assigned Names Authority. Scott is one of the people responsible for giving us the Internet. So, thanks for that, Scott!

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Scott begins by pointing to the “absurdity” of Ted Cruz’s campaign
to prevent the “Internet giveaway.”“ The idea that “Obama gave away the Internet” is “hooey,”” The idea that “Obama gave away the Internet” is “hooey,” says Scott.

IANA started with a need to coordinate information, not to control it, he says. It began with the Network Working Group in 1968. Then Requests for Comments (RFC) in 1969. . The name “IANA” showed up in 1988, although the function had begun in 1972 with coordinating socket numbers. The Domain Name System made IP addresses easier to use, including the hierarchical clustering under .com, .org, etc.

Back to the beginning, computers were too expensive for every gov’t department to have one. So, ARPA wanted to share large and expensive computers among users. It created a packet-based network, which broke info up into packets that were then transmitted. Packet networking was the idea of Paul Baran at RAND who wanted a system that would survive a nuclear strike, but the aim of that network was to share computers. The packets had enough info to make it to their destinations, but the packet design made “no assumptions about the underlying transport network.” No service guarantees about packets making it through were offered. The Internet is the interconnection of the different networks, including the commercial networks that began showing up in the 1990s.

No one cared about the Net for decades. To the traditional telecom and corporate networking people, it was just a toy—”No quality of service, no guarantees, no security, no one in charge.” IBM thought you couldn’t build a network out of this because their definition of a network — the minimal requirements — was different. “That was great because it meant the regulators ignored us.”

The IANA function went into steady state 1984-1995. It did some allocating of addresses. (When Scott asked Jon Postel for addresses for Harvard, Postel sent him some; Postel was the one-person domain allocation shop.) IANA ran it for the top level domains.

“The Internet has few needs,” Scott says. It’s almost all done through collaboration and agreement. There are no requirements except at a very simple level. The only centralized functions: 1. We have to agree on what the protocol parameters are. Machines have to understand how to read the packet headers. 2. We have to allocate blocks of IP addresses and ASN‘s. 3. We have to have a single DNS, at least for now. IANA handles those three. “Everything else is distributed.” Everything else is collaboration.

In 1993, Network Solutions was given permission to start selling domain names. A domain cost $100 for 2 yrs. There were were about 100M names at that point, which added up to real money. Some countries even started selling off their TLD’s (top level domains), e.g., .tv

IANA dealt with three topics, but DNS was the only one of interest to most people. There was pressure to create new TLDs, which Scott thinks doesn’t solve any real problems. That power was given to ISOC, which set up the International Ad-Hoc Committee in 1996. It set up 7 new TLDs, one of which (.web) caused Image Online Design to sue Postel because they said Postel had promised it to them. The Dept. of Commerce saw that it needed to do something. So they put out an RFC and got 400+ comments. Meanwhile, Postel worked on a plan for institutionalizing the IANA function, which culminated in a conference in Jan 1998. Postel couldn’t go, so Scott presented in his stead.

Shortly after that the Dept of Commerce proposed having a private non-profit coordinate and manage the allocation of the blocks to the registries, manage the file that determines TLDs, and decide which TLDs should exist…the functions of IANA. “There’s no Internet governance here, simply what IANA did.”

There were meetings around the world to discuss this, including one sponsored by the Berkman Center. Many of the people attending were there to discuss Internet governance, which was not the point of the meetings. One person said, “Why are we wasting time talking about TLDs when the Internet is going to destroy countries?” “Most of us thought that was a well-needed vacuum,” says Scott. We didn’t need Internet governance. We were better off without it.

Jon Postel submitted a proposal for an Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). He died of a heart attack shortly thereafter. The Dept. of Commerce accepted the proposal. In Oct 1998 ICANN had its first board meeting. It was a closed meeting “which anticipated much of what’s wrong with ICANN.”

The Dept of Commerce had oversight over ICANN but its only power was to say yes or no to the file that lists the TLDs and the IP addresses of the nameservers for each of the TLDs.” “That’s the entirety of the control the US govt had over ICANN. “In theory, the Dept of Commerce could have said ‘Take Cuba out of that file,’ but that’s the most ridiculous thing they could have done and most of the world could have ignored them.” The Dept of Commerce never said no to ICANN.

ICANN institutionalizes the IANA. But it also has to deal with trademark issues coming out of domain name registrations, and consults on DNS security issues. “ICANN was formed as a little organization to replace Jon Postel.”

It didn’t stay little. ICANN’s budget went from a few million bucks to over $100M.“ “That’s a lot of money to replace a few competent geeks.”” “That’s a lot of money to replace a few competent geeks.” It’s also approved hundreds of TLDs. The bylaws went from 7,000 words to 37,000 words. “If you need 37,000 words to say what you’re doing, there’s something wrong.”

The world started to change. Many govts see the Net as an intrinsic threat.

  • In Sept. 2001, India, Brazil, and South Africa proposed that the UN undertake governance of the Internet.

  • Oct 2013: After Snowden, the Montevideo Statement on the Future of Internet Cooperation proposing moving away from US govt’s oversight of IANA.

  • Apr. 2014: NetMundial Initiative. “Self-appointed 25-member council to perform internet governance.”

  • Mar. 2014: NTIA announces its intent to transition key domain name functions.

The NTIA proposal was supposed to involve all the stakeholders. But it also said that ICANN should continue to maintain the openness of the Internet…a function that ICANN never had. Openness arises from the technical nature of the Net. NTIA said it wouldn’t accept an inter-governmental solution (like the ITU) because it has to involve all the stakeholders.

So who holds ICANN accountable? They created a community process that is “incredibly strong.” It can change the bylaws, and remove ICAN directors or the entire board.

Meanwhile, the US Congress got bent out of shape because the US is “giving away the Internet.” It blocked the NTIA from acting until Sept. 2016. On Oct. 1 IANA became independent and is under the control of the community. “This cannot be undone.” “If the transition had not happened, forces in the UN would likely have taken over” governance of the Internet. This would have been much more likely if the NTIA had not let it go. “The IANA performs coordination functions, not governance. There is no Internet governance.”

How can there be no governance? “Because nobody cared for long enough that it got away from them,” Scott says. “But is this a problem we have to fix?”

He leaves the answer hanging. [SPOILER: The answer is NO]


Q: Under whom do the IRI‘s [Internationalized Resource Identifier] operate?

A: Some Europeans offered to take over European domain names from Jon Postel. It’s an open question whether they have authority to do what they’re doing Every one has its own policy development process.

Q: Where’s research being done to make a more distributed Internet?

A: There have been many proposals ever since ICANN was formed to have some sort of distributed maintenance of the TLDs. But it always comes down to you seeing the same .com site as I do — the same address pointing to the same site for all Internet users. You still have to centralize or at least distribute the mapping. Some people are looking at geographic addressing, although it doesn’t scale.

Q: Do you think Trump could make the US more like China in terms of the Internet?

A: Trump signed on to Cruz’s position on IANA. The security issue is a big one, very real. The gut reaction to recent DDOS
attacks is to fix that rather than to look at the root cause, which was crappy devices. The Chinese government controls the Net in China by making everyone go through a central, national connection. Most countries don’t do that. OTOH, England is imposing very strict content

rules that all ISPs have to obey. We may be moving to a telephony model, which is a Westphalian
idea of national Internets.

Q: The Net seems to need other things internationally controlled, e.g. buffer bloat. Peer pressure seems to be the only way: you throw people off who disagree.

A: IANA doesn’t have agreements with service providers. Buffer bloat is a real issue but it only affects the people who have it, unlike the IoT DDOS attack that affected us all. Are you going to kick off people who’s home security cameras are insecure?

Q: Russia seems to be taking the opposite approach. It has lots of connections coming into it, perhaps for fear that someone would cut them off. Terrorist groups are cutting cables, botnets, etc.

A: Great question. It’s not clear there’s an answer.

Q: With IPv6 there are many more address spaces to give out. How does that change things?

A: The DNS is an amazing success story. It scales extremely well … although there are scaling issues with the backbone routing systems, which are big and expensive. “That’s one of the issues we wanted to address when we did IPv6.”

Q: You said that ICANN has a spotty history of transparency. What role do you think ICANN is going to play going forward? Can it improve on its track record?

A: I’m not sure that it’s relevant. IANA’s functions are not a governance function. The only thing like a governance issue are the TLDs and ICANN has already blown that.

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February 15, 2016

What Facebook should learn from this "Colonialism" debacle

DigitalTrends has posted my post about the reaction to Marc Andreessen’s response to India’s saying No to Free Basics, the Facebook version of the Internet. Andreessen’s framing it in terms of colonialism was — unfortunately for him — all too apt.


October 31, 2015

What the Internet actually is: A reminder for policy-makers

Just in case you’ve confused the Internet with the entities that bring us access to the Internet or with the machines that instantiate the Internet, here’s an actual goddamn definition:


“The Federal Networking Council (FNC) agrees that the following language reflects our definition of the term “Internet”.

“Internet” refers to the global information system that —

(i) is logically linked together by a globally unique address space based on the Internet Protocol (IP) or its subsequent extensions/follow-ons;

(ii) is able to support communications using the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) suite or its subsequent extensions/follow-ons, and/or other IP-compatible protocols; and

(iii) provides, uses or makes accessible, either publicly or privately, high level services layered on the communications and related infrastructure described herein.”

This is from a 1995 report by The Federal Networking Council, which is too old even for the Wayback Machine. According to Wikipdia, the FNC was “was chartered by the US National Science and Technology Council’s Committee on Computing, Information and Communications (CCIC) to act as a forum for networking collaborations among US federal agencies…” It was dissolved in 1997. But its words are still good.

More than good. The definition quote above comes recommended by a coupla guys who know something about the topic: Robert E. Kahn and Vinton G. Cerf. In their classic article, What is the Internet?, they refer to it as follows:

The authors believe the best definition currently in existence is that approved by the Federal Networking Council in 1995, and which is reproduced in the footnote below [xv] for ready reference.

Keep it ready for reference the next time an access provider complains about regulations as if the access providers are or own the Internet. The Internet is bigger than that. And deeper. And ours.

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June 22, 2015

Has the Internet been paved? has just posted an article of mine that re-examines the “Argument from Architecture” that has been at the bottom of much of what I’ve written over the past twenty years. That argument says, roughly, that the Internet’s architecture embodies particular values that are inevitably transmitted to its users. (Yes, the article discusses what “inevitably” means in this context.) But has the Net been so paved by Facebook, apps, commercialism, etc., that we don’t experience that architecture any more?


February 4, 2015

Understanding Title II reclassification, Common Carriage, and other mega-confusing FCC stuff just posted my “explainer” about what Title II reclassification means especially within its historical context — a context that shows that reclassification is the opposite of a “radical change.” It in fact reinstates the prior classification and uses centuries-old practices for common carriers.

What I wrote is entirely based on Barbara Cherry, who I thank for her expertise and incredibly patience in explaining it to me.


January 8, 2015

New Clues

The project with Doc that I mentioned is a new set of clues, following on The Cluetrain Manifesto from 16 years ago.

The clues are designed as an open source publishing project: The text is in the public domain, and we’re making the clues available at Github in various computer-friendly formats, including JSON, OPML and XML.

We launched this morning and a happy hell has broken loose. So I’m just going to posts some links for now. In fact, I’m copying and pasting from an email by Doc:

Gotta run…


December 5, 2014

Organic Net Neutrality

I’ve started blogging at, the only mobile access provider I actually like. I’ll tell you why in a moment. But first, here’s the opening of my first post:

There are two types of Net Neutrality. Supporters of it (like me) spend most of their time arguing for Artificial Net Neutrality: a government policy that regulates the few dominant providers of access to the Internet. In fact, we should be spending more of our time reminding people that before Artificial Net Neutrality the Internet came by its neutrality naturally, even organically.

To see the difference, you have to keep in mind, (as my friend Doc Searls frequently reminds me) that Net Neutrality refers not only to a policy but to a fundamental characteristic of the Internet. The Internet is an inter-network: local networks agree to pass data (divided into packets) without discriminating among them, so that no matter what participating network you’re plugged into, you can always get and send information anywhere else on the Net. That’s the magic of the Net…

In fact, it’s because the creators of the Internet didn’t try to anticipate what people would use it for that it has become the greatest engine of creativity and wealth in recorded history…

The piece goes on to cite Seth Johnson whose nice way of explaining the distinction is at the heart of the post. Thanks, Seth!


Now, why I like Ting. It was created by my friend Elliot Noss, who also founded Tucows and my favorite domain registrar, Ting is Elliot’s way of showing that you can run a wireless access provider, treat your customers superbly, charge very modestly, actively advocate for an open Internet, treat your employees well, and be quite profitable.

Ting charges $6/month per device, and then strictly by use. But Ting charges so little for use that your bill is likely to be way lower per month than what you’d paying any of the majors. E.g., four text msgs will cost you all of a single penny. The three of us in my family on the plan pay Ting about $75/month total, and we don’t stint on our usage. What my parent-in-laws are paying T-Mobile $80/month for Ting will give them for $20-25.

The drawbacks: Because there are no contracts, you’ve got to buy your own phone without a subsidy from Ting. And, Ting uses the Sprint network, which works ok for me, but is not a great network. The competitive feature that I miss the most is T-Mobile’s crazy unlimited data worldwide. Someday!

Now for disclosure: As I mentioned, I’m friends with Elliot. Ting is paying me to blog there. Aside from that, I’m just a happy customer.

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December 2, 2014

Micah Sifry: Why the Net’s effect on politics has disappointed us

This is a liveblog of Micah Sifry’s book talk hosted by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. It is not a perfect transcript of the event. It was created collaboratively by Erhardt Graeff, , Nathan Matias, Sands Fish, Dalia Othman, Mayte Schomburg, and David Larochelle. and me. It’s also posted at the MIT Center for Civic Media blog, from whom I have stolen this html-ized version. I have done a tiny bit of cleanup, and inserted a few comments in brackets…

Micah Sifry at Berkman Center

Micah Sifry is the co-founder and editorial director of Personal Democracy Media, Kate Krontiris (today’s moderator) met him a few years back and asked him what an online Civic Hall would look like. Now “Civic Hall” will be opening soon in NYC in January as a brick and mortar institution.

Kate Krontiris: Why did you write this book? What case studies or sparks made you think there’s something to write about here?

Micah Sifry: I had a persistent editor at a small publishing house (OR Books). Great people to work for. The impetus for the book was the sense after ten years of long engagement observation in the the tech politics scene in the USA and a little abroad, through PDF conferences and blogging at techpresident, I finally got my head around what was bothering me. I thought I could lay out what I wanted to say about the hopes and aspirations for the internet, and what did and did not happen. Starting point was 10 years ago with explosion of civic participation around Howard Dean campaign. What we thought would happen, what has happened, and what we can do to shift the course.

The disruptive moment is over. [It certainly seems like it. But disruptive moments are like the Spanish Inquisition.] The expectation that reducing the barrier to entry would lead to a democratization of power has not been fulfilled. We need to distinguish what the internet seems to be good for in the political arena for small -d democratization and what it is not. My book focuses on two areas: (1) the changes in the political campaigning space in how they use tech, data analytics and their supporters, and how the role of the citizen in influencing the process has shrunk rather than increased. (2) How advocacy orgs have also adapted to mass connectivity and mass participation, largely by using Big Data, analytics, A/B testing, etc., to extract some value but not to empower people in any quantifiable way

We have not changed the political operating system in any major way or the way we expected. The percentage of money coming from small donors is essentially constant from 2004 to 2012, without even considering the superpacs enabled by the Citizens United case. We thought that the number of small donors would explode, but today we are seeing that most of the money is coming from large donors.

So there’s a lot of soul searching to be done by the tech community.

Also: there’s the problem of the attention economy and the perverse effect that we have made self expression so easy, but we have not made the listening function work at a pace that keeps up with all the expression.

Kate reads an excerpt from Page 48:

The result is a body politic that has grown more and more distorted. It has a gigantic mouth and two huge fists, left and right, that spend most of their time swinging at each other. Its heart still beats strong, and often it races in response to emotional events. But its ears and eyes are deafened and blinded by all the noise and flash; its stomach only rarely gets to digest anything; and its leg muscles are atrophying from lack of use.

Present Shock” by Douglas Rushkoff crystalized this: The future is here and it’s broken the present. We’re losing our collective attention, which is what we need for political action. Each advocacy group may get your attention, but that collectively pollutes the commons. The only things that seem to interrupt that are hugely emotional spectacles and giant crises like hurricanes cutting off NYC’s power.

Silver lining: We’re a little more resilient in response to crises. And I don’t want to leave the impression that I think the internet is bad. I love the internet as much as I hate the internet now.

Kate: In the book, you make the observations:
1. The effective use of tech is no longer a low barrier. You need money and power to wield these tools well.
2. The Net’s better at gathering Stop energy than Go energy.
3. We don’t have very good tools for doing things together.

Can you talk a little bit more about your chapter on big data? You talk about Obama being the most technological president. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Micah: I wanted to put to rest the question: What happened after 2008? Why didn’t Obama come to DC with his list of millions of energized supporters? They trained tens of thousands of organizers in a rigorous way. Why didn’t that go forward? Why was it so easily smothered?

The answer is only in part due to Obama. We now know he is nowhere near the community organizer he was portrayed as. He’s a technocrat and very cautious politician. You can blame Rahm Emanuel and the other people around him but he’s the one who picked ’em. The question is: Why didn’t the base fight that?

I think the answer is that the tools the Obama campaign used were not designed to make it easy for the base to organize itself. There was a time in 2008 when Obama signalled he was going to shift his position on the FISA wiretapping bill. A group formed on MyBarackObama and swelled to 20,000 people, the largest group there. It forced Obama to deal with it and issue a statement saying, “I heard you, but here’s what I believe,” followed by his advisors spending three hours liveblogging…and the issue went away. The question is why we let that happen.

When Obama came in, there was no transition plan for the base. We can’t just blame the top. We have to asked ourselves why Americans don’t have a stronger tradition of assertion. In my book, I don’t spend enough time exploring where that culture comes from: lack of history, forgetting that politicians need to be held accountable, very weak local communal organization. So I’m not sure this generalizes to other countries. E.g., Spain has a stronger tradition of local self-organization. The Podemos party is using Reddit and Loomio to do face-to-face organizing, showing that other paths are possible. There was a moment when the Obama team reached out to the supporters and there was a high response and support them and many of them expressed their interest in running for local office, but nothing happened. A lot of people didn’t take matters into their own hands because of deep cultural issues. I think of this as “learned deference.”

Also, a failure of leadership. The history of the Democratic party is that there’s a moment when the people try to keep the pressure on, and then they lose. E.g., Clinton and Labor.

Kate: We’ll get to a moment of optimism, but not yet.

Micah: Yochai Benkler read the manuscript, didn’t find much to disagree with, and said that afterwards he felt like crawling under a rock. [There’s your cover blurb, Micah!]

Kate: Let’s talk about another force shaping the body politic: big technology companies are another group affecting these efforts. What role do you see these companies playing now and what do you think these companies can do to more positively promote civic life?

Micah: The people inside the companies think they’re benign. They have very little self-awareness of the possibility that the effect of what they’ve created could be dangerous. I’ve been banging on Facebook for years to get them to open up and tell us more about the experiments they’ve done where they tweak the news feed or put the “megaphone” to encourage people to vote. In 2012, in the 10 weeks before the election, they pushed hard news to the top of the feed of two million users. If your friend shared a link to a news story, they would put those articles at the very top. They then went back and surveyed that group. The self-reported results of the survey were that people who saw the news higher up reported that they were significantly more likely to vote and pay attention to government. They were planning to publish an academic paper about the results and the issue with academic papers is that we’ll get to see the results and learn from them years after the event.

News publishers are afraid to question the power of social media platforms. The power of these platforms is enormous and we have to take their word on their experiments. There needs to be independent auditing of Facebook algorithms by other qualified technologists, so that if Facebook says it does something in a neutral and random way, we can see if it was actually neutral and random. It’s good when companies do things like encouraging people to be organ donors, but as they have a drive to maximize profits, it will be important to watch the effect they have on society.

We have to be concerned that so much of our public discourse occurs on private platforms. Why should an Orthodox Jew who doesn’t want to be on Facebook be forced to be a member of Facebook in order to participate in a town hall with their member of Congress? If Walmart were hosting town hall meetings and required people to have Walmart cards to participate, we would be up in arms. Why do congress-people do that with Facebook?

Another piece of important work for us is building the public internet. The government should be doing this, but isn’t. You can get a permit for a meeting in a public park, but you can’t congregate on a government website. I can’t get an email address from the Post Office. We’ve allowed too much thinking about what a public internet should look like fall under the carpet.

We can distinguish among the platforms. Twitter is a better platform than Facebook for enabling public discourse on a topic. But that is about to change, as they start diddling with their platform and you’ll see less of what you want to see and more of what they want you to see.

Kate: So you’re interested not only in the algorithm and its transparency, but also about the kind of platform on which we might have public discussion?

Micah: Yes, we need to have public platforms. Our communication is happening on private connections. The US has twice tried to deal with crises in public infrastructure. Access to clean water in NYC in the 1800s when there was a cholera epidemic from drinking water polluted with sewage. Moms and dads bought water sources in upstate New York and built aqueducts to bring it into the city. And that’s when it became the premier metropolis in the United States.

Second there was the provision of a telephone dial tone. Today, public broadband is the dial tone of the twentieth century: that is another aspect of building the public infrastructure and Internet that we need.

Micah: We should also talk about Stop/Go. The Wealth of Networks is a bible to me, as I expect it is to lots of people in this room. I agree that the networked public sphere is a better public sphere than the mass media public sphere. But there is a flaw in the examples Benkler puts in the Wealth of Networks. The cases, where the public has a greater interest than moneyed actors, whether it’s Diebold having flaws in their electronic ballot machines; or the Sinclair Network trying to put out partisan videos right before an election, and a civic network organizes and protests, and Sinclair withdraws them; or SOPA/PIPA is another example, where Hollywood overreaches and the Internet public, with the help of large companies rises to oppose the legislation…

What do these cases have in common? An outrageous action. People know what they want to stop Diebold, Sinclair, SOPA/PIPA, stop Wikileaks from being taken off the Web.

The Internet is very good at “stop moments” but not “go” moments.

What tool would you use to enable a consensus to form among a group of people if you’re working on the Web and there isn’t an existing consensus? A wiki? When Wikipedia decided to go dark in support of the SOPA/PIPA protest, they used Jimmy Wales’ Talk page. Try to read it. It’s 55 screens long on my laptop. There’s no way that people read all that. You might say it was sufficient because people came to agreement, but, it’s not at all clear to me that the minority voices came to agreement.

The most painful example: Egypt. There was consensus for the Stop: to get Mubarak out of office. But when they briefly had an opening to create a new government, they failed. They fractured. We have a disease of too much ease in expressing yourself and not enough listening and coming to agreement.

Kate: Is there fundamental clash between Internet organizing and community organizing?

Micah: We have to change the toolset. We need easy to use tools that replicate the processes that community organizers use, to avoid privileging face to face; not everyone can get to a community meeting at night.

Loomio has a great opportunity to fix this gap. This is a tool that was written by folks in New Zealand who participated first hand in the occupy protests in Wellington. They realized that the consensus-based decision-making broke down when scaling in space or time.

The problem with Loomio is that it works well if you are already part of a bounded group. If the group feels like they have a common purpose they are bound to, then Loomio works great for them. We haven’t solved the problem of getting people to that point of common purpose. It may be unsolvable.

Kate: In the last chapter you reflect on the Snowden moment and what it means for us. You are by nature hopeful and optimistic, yet this book suggests that we shouldn’t be optimistic. Is that right? When you finished writing it did you think there are reasons to be hopeful?

Micah: I’m hopeful constitutionally for lots of different reasons. But I think seeing things clearly is the starting point for acting in better ways. Maybe I’ve cleared some cobwebs. That’s the prerequisite for taking better action going forward: understanding what has happened before.

Lots of complicated thoughts about the Snowden affair. The constitutional optimist in me is with Cory Doctorow who says the moment of peak apathy by privacy and surveillance is over. We’re seeing some changes in tech. E.g., WhatsApp adopted privacy encryption for 100s of millions of users. It’s a reason for optimism that some companies are opting for privacy as default.

We have a political sickness. I don’t know a single Congressperson who’s called for clemency for Snowden. There’s been political pressure for reform, but that’s been blocked. But there will be more.

I had lunch with Ben Wizner [twitter: benwizner, who is Snowden’s ACLU lawyer. First off, Snowden’s film may be nominated for an Oscar and will be on HBO which will give millions a chance to learn more about him. Second, Snowden is incredibly popular among people. He articulates what the Internet should be in a way that many young people recognize. The fact that 3-4M people have told the FCC that they want Net Neutrality is a pretty big deal; I’m surprised this issue is even still alive.

On the other hand, we’re creatures of convenience. Yesterday I gave a talk at Nicco Mele‘s class at the Harvard JFK school. I said to the students, “You know, if you’re not paying for something, you’re the product.” People’s eyes light up and say, “I never thought of that!” On the other hand, people may not want to know they are the product. That might be when the scales fall from people’s eyes. I expect to see more clashes along these battle lines.

I have one request to make: We need to stop referring to “privacy policies.” I’m on the board of Consumer Reports and I’ve been urging them to adopt this change.

It’s not privacy if they have your data. It’s fine if you want to give that away, but don’t refer to it as privacy.

I write something called First POST, which you can all subscribe to; it’s free. And when I go to put that together, every day I see where someone is doing something good with the internet.

Kate: Thanks. I feel better.

Micah: Don’t feel too much better.

Micah Sifry at the Berkman Center

Halley Suitt: What should those policies be called?

Micah: Daily usage policies

David Larochelle: At the beginning you talked about filtering out Citizens United when comparing then to now. Maybe without the Net things would be much worse than they are now.

Micah: If you look at political contributions, the percentage of money going from small donors (Anyone who gives less than $200 is considered a small donor) has gone from 8-10% in House races and from 12-14% in Senate races since 2004 to 2012. There are a handful of candidates, like Elizabeth Warren, who have amassed a serious war chest from small donations. They’re just a few, not enough to say that the operating system of politics has changed. The most depressing statistic of all is that if the barrier to participation in politics has been lowered by the Internet, why are 4-10 races per state unopposed? People don’t bother because they know the incumbent is going to win. The problem is gerrymandering, pork, learned deference, corrupt local power structures — many other things than technology go into the lack of society opening up in the way we hoped.

Let me give a silver lining, because I see so many grim faces. The one change I would credit to the open media system the Net has enabled is the rise of women and minorities into parity. We’re living through a calamitous moment when you think about how gender and race are emerging online and demanding parity. The idea that Bill Cosby could be taken down after decades of successfully suppressing rape allegations— his defense just shattered. Every day, another bastion of male power starts to crumble, like the fraternity system. Women are 51% of the population and not 51% of the power, but open media is enabling an assertion. This is not without horrible misogyny, harassment and attacks on women in response, but this is a rising force that is actually getting stronger with each battle.

David Weinberger: I love the book, and I love you. I have two reactions to the book. I am totally depressed by it. I was an optimist and something of a techno-determinist. But I think there is something optimistic in what David Larochelle just said. When I was a lad and you wanted to get information from your congressperson, you had to go and get a one-page mimeographed copy of their position paper, on maybe a dozen topics. Our ability to get information now is amazing. There is a bigger change than we could have anticipated in how we engage in politics. On the other hand, nothing has changed as you pointed out; the money has made things worse. So there are forces outside of technology (as you say). Technology is not enough to overcome these powers. In the longer game though I still have hope.

Micah: I still have hope too. The optimist in me is amazed that the week SOPA/PIPA happened there had been almost no mainstream media coverage, but the Pew survey of what people were paying attention to that week showed that old people were paying attention to the cruise ship that sunk but young people were paying attention to the SOPA/PIPA issue.

David W: Not just that they were paying attention but the depth of understanding that they had about this issue was so much more than they would have had before this new technology existed.

Micah: We may be at the extreme end of arc here and might unlearn some bad behaviors. We are constantly attracted by what the next spectacle is that attracts our attention. I hope that by pointing that out we might collectively decide to stop doing it. We still have way more good stuff to look at that might keeps us sitting still. Clay Shirky says we don’t have info overload, we have filter failure. He’s hopeful that our filters will get better and better and get pure signal. Nicholas Carr says that we in fact have filter success, not filter failure, because we are getting fed the good stuff — the algorithms are working in our Facebook feed—and we are getting too much of it.

The best example I have in my book is on SeeClickFix. SeeClickFix fascinates me a lot; it’s based in New Haven, CT. It’s basically 3-1-1 + location + phone. It started when Ben Berkowitz wanted to report something to city hall. This started when it became easy to put things on Google Maps. He and some friends spent a weekend hacking together a way to post a report to a map and allow comments on it for others to participate.

City hall started to get emails from people putting up issues on SeeClickFix and asking for service. And the city ran with it rather than ignoring those emails. SeeClickFix is now operating at scale in New Haven. They have 17,000+ registered users from a population of about 140,000. This is altering how the city works there. In the book, I write about a report a lady submitted about a stray dog (see the excerpt on TechPresident).

This is an example of local civic life being enacted….

Kate: what you call thick engagement..

Micah: … Thick engagement means to me more than click and sharing, but rather knowing each other and having a sense of obligation. [Micah tells an anecdote about SeeClickFix being used to enable neighbors to watch out for one another.]

SeeClickFix has created an augmented reality that makes things better for everyday life (read Micah’s post on SeeClickFix from June). New Haven’s municipal website gives real estate for a live feed of recent reports from SeeClickFix. By the way, SeeClickFix is a for-profit. It begins to knit together the opportunity for greater civic action. E.g., food deserts, intersections where lots of people have been hit by cars.

So I think there’s a way to design for thick engagement that improves people’s lives. But it can also be used in a Big Brother way. E.g., Waze is giving its traffic data to civic managers in Rio de Janeiro, but the drivers don’t have any sense that they are contributing their data. SeeClickFix enables people to share a common location to form interest groups. Waze did that in Europe, but not once it was bought by Google.

Richard Parker: I hear you talking about pessimism and I think about starting Mother Jones 40 yrs ago: Nixon, Vietnam, etc. And I’m not as pessimistic as you are. I’d like to see this discussion become part of a larger public discussion. Thomas Piketty has begun this conversation. Big Data frightens more people than it encourages them. The environment has become a mobilizing issue. The discussion of tech if nested within the wider environment might bring more empowerment.

Micah: Richard, I think that first of all the shiny optimism about tech is losing some of its sheen. The conversation around inequality and the degree to which the Silicon Valley version of how the tech economy is working is finally on the table. There are conflicting goals: there are a lot of us fighting for expanded broadband access because the way the economy works now you can’t even apply for a job without wifi. There’s a lot of boostering going on about how important it is to open up free or low-cost access, but we have to skate past the question whether the Net is empowering those without power or entrenching those with power already. I don’t feel like that discussion is being engaged all that well right now.

On the other hand, I think there is a cultural desire for magical power that tech still embodies for people. It’s like secular religion. When Apple introduced the iPad that moment got more international attention than Obama’s first State of the Union speech which was probably a more important event. That’s part of why every day we share these amazing examples of altruism or collective action that the Internet enables and helps us discover, and that’s a good thing. We have the capacity to do self-organized, non-market-based collective action at world scale. We’re not doing it yet, but it’s a potential yet to be realized and could be a very very very powerful thing.

Felipe Heusser: I agree that when you look at a significant portion of Internet users as a herd, there are reasons to be pessimistic. What is the role that you assign to smaller intermediaries: companies, organizers, NGOs? Rather than arriving at consensus around something, what about smaller groups that push for more specific issues? In our work on civic technology, we got lobby legislation passed after a big campaign — our tenth campaign. Over time, we’re getting better at politics, using tech tools to create awareness, while also playing the field of lobbying. When we used both elements, we were able to get legislation passed. Might organizing institutions be getting better at the Internet and Internet organizers be getting better at politics?

Micah: I think what you were asking was in reference to the American political context. I don’t know how you guys managed to pass that strong legislation in Chile. What I would say about that is you always get a moment of transition wherein there is an opportunity to make change. The longer the government is in power, the harder it is to make changes. Obama was great on transparency on his first day in office, but the longer he’s in office, the worse he gets about it. You have to use that window.

We need something like the NRA for the internet. People need to believe that the internet is a fundamental part of their identity like owning a gun. We need internet lover’s leagues. This is one of the unfinished moves in our emerging political process as more people express their desire for an open internet. [This is a remaining strand of optimism in Micah’s thought: Getting more people on line, especially those with less power, and good things will happen.] Those people are out there they are just not organized. And there are members of congress that probably know that they have constituents that care about the internet. I tried to convince Google to mobilize the 2-3M people they had on their SOPA/PIPA list, but no.

Tim Davies: in the case of See Click Fix, the state is collaborating with the public. In other cases like OpenCorporates, we see civic technologies as a balance to power, providing open data so essential to a civic infrastructure. What key civic infrastructures are needed, in addition to public space and broadband?

Micah: I’m intrigued by the Indieweb movement, the idea that we can own our own stake and claim to a piece of cyberspace. As people think about themselves not wanting to be products, the answer is to think about how to be an owner of your own space online. There are many ways to do that- maybe the library that trains students on how to do research could also train them how to be your own person online.

I should really talk about Civic Hall. It’s basically PDF all year round. We are trying to create a space where people like NGOs, activist, and technologists can get together and experiment. We have a space opening next month in the heart of Silicon Alley that will hold about 150 people.

Mayte Schomburg: Although Internet conversations can reveal to us what the public is passionate about, government doesn’t always pick up on the conversation. The system is very self-referential and does not have the incentive to pick up on what is politically relevant. In our small NGO in Germany (, we’re working on non-partisan spaces for deliberation around politics. Originally, we were thinking that this should be provided by the state. However, in Germany, we have a lack of trust of the people in politics who we are trying to reach, so as things stand at the moment we don’t even accept state funding. Institutions have been slow to catch up to movements. We realized that the government wasn’t going to do it, and that it’s now too late for them to have the legitimacy to create public space. If someone were to create public Internet for political discussion in the US, would the government be the right entity to create this?

Micah: I kind of like Germany at the moment having twice seen the horror of what can happen with big data. The Germans are most attuned to those issues. I like that GErmans have sufficient distrust of the state to form alternative ways to do what you are describing. For me, the state is the option of last resort. I would like something independent that is then supported by government.

In order to make the connection to enable political discourse, I think it’s important that governments create processes to open two-way channels. The head of the rules committee of the Utah House of Representatives opened up a space for comments online to share. People keep trying to open things up to a group of people not bound by common purpose, it fails. Richard Durbin tried this too until the graduate student working for him went back to school. But when people who have power make the efforts, there is a possibility.

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November 26, 2014

Welcome to the open Net!

I wanted to play Tim Berners-Lee’s 1999 interview with Terry Gross on WHYY’s Fresh Air. Here’s how that experience went:

  • I find a link to it on a SlashDot discussion page.

  • The link goes to a text page that has links to Real Audio files encoded either for 28.8 or ISBN.

  • I download the ISBN version.

  • It’s a RAM (Real Audio) file that my Mac (Yosemite) cannot play.

  • I look for an updated version on the Fresh Air site. It has no way of searching, so I click through the archives to get to the Sept. 16, 1999 page.

  • It’s a 404 page-not-found page.

  • I search for a way to play an old RAM file.

  • The top hit takes me to Real Audio’s cloud service, which offers me 2 gigabytes of free storage. I decline.

  • I pause for ten silent seconds in amazement that the Real Audio company still exists. Plus it owns the domain “”

  • I download a copy of RealPlayerSP from CNET, thus probably also downloading a copy of MacKeeper. Thanks, CNET!

  • I open the Real Player converter and Apple tells me I don’t have permission because I didn’t buy it through Apple’s TSA clearance center. Thanks, Apple!

  • I do the control-click thang to open it anyway. It gives me a warning about unsupported file formats that I don’t understand.

  • Set System Preferences > Security so that I am allowed to open any software I want. Apple tells me I am degrading the security of my system by not giving Apple a cut of every software purchase. Thanks, Apple!

  • I drag in the RAM file. It has no visible effect.

  • I use the converter’s upload menu, but this converter produced by Real doesn’t recognize Real Audio files. Thanks, Real Audio!

  • I download and install the Real Audio Cloud app. When I open it, it immediately scours my disk looking for video files. I didn’t ask it to do that and I don’t know what it’s doing with that info. A quick check shows that it too can’t play a RAM file. I uninstall it as quickly as I can.

  • I download VLC, my favorite audio player. (It’s a new Mac and I’m still loading it with my preferred software.)

  • Apple lets me open it, but only after warning me that I shouldn’t trust it because it comes from [dum dum dum] The Internet. The scary scary Internet. Come to the warm, white plastic bosom of the App Store, it murmurs.

  • I drag the file in to VLC. It fails, but it does me the favor of tellling me why: It’s unable to connect to WHYY’s Real Audio server. Yup, this isn’t a media file, but a tiny file that sets up a connection between my computer and a server WHYY abandoned years ago. I should have remembered that that’s how Real worked. Actually, no, I shouldn’t have had to remember that. I’m just embarrassed that I did not. Also, I should have checked the size of the original Fresh Air file that I downloaded.

  • A search for “Time Berners-Lee Fresh Air 1999” immediately turns up an NPR page that says the audio is no longer available.

    It’s no longer available because in 1999 Real Audio solved a problem for media companies: install a RA server and it’ll handle the messy details of sending audio to RA players across the Net. It seemed like a reasonable approach. But it was proprietary and so it failed, taking Fresh Air’s archives with it. Could and should have Fresh Air converted its files before it pulled the plug on the Real Audio server? Yeah, probably, but who knows what the contractual and technical situation was.

    By not following the example set by Tim Berners-Lee — open protocols, open standards, open hearts — this bit of history has been lost. In this case, it was an interview about TBL’s invention, thus confirming that irony remains the strongest force in the universe.

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