Joho the Blog » democracy

June 29, 2012

[aspen] Eric Schmidt on the Net and Democracy

Eric Schmidt is being interviewed by Jeff Goldberg about the Net and Democracy. I’ll do some intermittent, incomplete liveblogging…

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.

NOTE: Posted without having even been re-read. Note note (a few hours later): I’ve done some basic cleanup.

After some amusing banter, Jeff asks Eric about how responsible he felt Google was for Arab Spring. Jeff in passing uses the phrase “Internet revolution.”

ES: Arab Spring was enabled by a failure to censure the Internet. Google enabled people to organize themselves. Especially in Libya, five different militias were able to organize their armed revolt by using the Net. It’s unfair to the people who died to call it an “Internet revolution.” But there were fewer people who died, in part because of the incessant media coverage. And we’ve seen that it’s very easy to start what some call an Internet revolution, but very hard to finish it.

JG: These were leaderless revolutions, crowdsourced revolution. But in Egypt the crowd’s leaders were easily pushed aside after Mubarek fell.

ES: True leaders are very hard to find. In Libya, there are 80 militias, armed to the teeth. In most of the countries there were repressed Muslim groups that have emerged as leaders because they organized while repressed. Whoever takes over inherits financial and social problems, and will be thrown out if they fail.

JG: Talk about Google’s tumultuous relationship with China…

ES: There are lots of reasons to think that China works because its citizens like its hierarchical structure. But I think you can’t build a knowledge society without freedom. China wants to be a knowledge society. It’s unclear if China’s current model gets them past a middle income GDP. Google thought that if we gave them free access to info, the Chinese people would revolt. We were wrong, and we moved Google to Hong Kong, on the open side of the Great Firewall. (We had to because that’s the Chinese law.) Now when you enter a forbidden query, we tell the user that it’s likely to be blocked. We are forbidden from announcing what the forbidden terms are because we don’t want employees put in jail.

JG: Could Arab Spring happen in China? Could students organize Tianamen Square now?

ES: They could use the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. But if someone organizes a protest, two people show up, plus 30 media, and 50 police.

JG: Google’s always argued that democratization of info erodes authoritarian control. Do you still believe that?

ES: The biggest thing I’ve learned is how hard it is to learn about the differences among people in and within countries. I continue to believe that this device [mobile phone] will change the world. The way to solve most of the world’s problems is by educating people. Because these devices will become ubiquitous, it’ll be possible to see how far we humans can get. With access to the Net, you can sue for justice. In the worst case you can actually shame people.

JG: And these devices can be used to track people.

ES: Get people to understand they have choices, and they will eventually organize. Mobiles tend to record info just by their nature. The phone company knows where you are right now. You’re not worried about that because a law says the phone company can’t come harass you where you’re sitting. In a culture where there isn’t agreement about basic rights…

JG: Is there evidence that our democracy is better off for having the Internet?

ES: When we built the Net, that wasn’t the problem we were solving. But more speech is better. There’s a lack of deliberative time in our political process. Our leaders will learn that they’ll make better decisions if they take a week to think about things. Things will get bad enough that eventually reason will prevail. We complain about our democracy, but we’re doing quite well. The US is the beacon of innovation, not just in tech, but in energy. “In God we trust … all others have to bring data.” Politicians should just start with some facts.

JG: It’s easier to be crazy and wrong on the Net.

ES: 0.5% of Americans are literally crazy. Two years ago, their moms got them broadband connections. And they have a lot of free time. Google is going to learn how to rank them. Google should enable us to hear all these voices, including the crazy people, and if we’re not doing that, we’re not doing our job.

JG: I googled “Syria massacre” this morning, and the first story was from Russia Today that spun it…

ES: It’s good that you have a choice. We have to educate ourselves and our children. Not everything written is true, and very powerful forces want to convince you of lies. The Net allows that, and we rank against it, but you have to do your own investigation.

JG: Google is hitting PR problems. Talk about privacy…

ES: There’s no delete button on the Net. When you’re a baby, no one knows anything about you. As you move through life, inevitably more people know more about you. We’re going to have to learn about that. The wifi info gathering by StreetView was an error, a mistake, and we’ve apologized for it.

JG: The future of journalism?

ES: A number of institutions are figuring out workable models. The Atlantic [our host]. Politico. HuffingtonPost. Clever entrepreneurs are figuring out how to make money. The traditional incumbents have been reduced in scale, but there are plenty of new voices. BTW, we just announced a tablet with interactive, dynamic magazines. To really worry about: We grew up with the bargain that newspapers had enough cash flow to fund long term investigative research. That’s a loss to democracy. The problem hasn’t been fully solved. Google has debated how to solve it, but we don’t want to cross the content line because then we’d be accused of bias in our rankings.

JG: Will search engines search for accuracy rather than popularity?

ES: Google’s algorithms are not about popularity. They’re about link structures, and we start from well-known sources. So we’re already there. We just have to get better.

JG: In 5 yrs what will the tech landscape look like?

ES: Moore’s Law says that in 5 yrs there will be more power for less money. We forget how much better our hw is now than even 5 years. And it’s faster than Moore’s Law for disks and fiber optic connections. Google is doing a testbed optical installation. At that bandwidth all media are just bits. We anticipate a lot of specialty devices.

JG: How do you expect an ordinary, competent politician to manage the info flow? Are we inventing tech that is past our ability to process info?

ES: The evidence is that the tech is bringing more human contact. The tech lets us express our humanity. We need a way of sorting politicians better. I’d suggest looking for leaders who work from facts.

JG: Why are you supporting Obama?

ES: I like having a smart president.

JG: Is Romney not smart?

ES: I know him. He’s a good man. I like Obama’s policies better.

Q&A

Q: Our connectivity is 3rd world. Why haven’t we been able to upgrade?

A: The wireless networks are running out of bandwidth. The prediction is they’ll be saturated in 2016. Maybe 2017. That’s understandable: Before, we were just typing online and now we’re watching movies. The White House in a few weeks is releasing a report that says that we can share bandwidth to get almost infinite bandwidth. Rather than allocating a whole chunk that leaves most of it unused, using interference databases we think we can fix this problem. [I think but please correct me: A database of frequency usages so that unused frequencies in particular geographic areas can be used for new signals.]

A: The digital can enhance our physical connections. E.g., a grandmother skyping with a grandchild.

JG: You said you can use the Net to shame govts. But there are plenty of videos of Syria doing horrible things, but it’s done no good.

ES: There are always particularly evil people. Syria is the exception. Most countries, even autocratic ones, are susceptible to public embarrassment.

Q: Saying “phones by their nature collect data” evades responsibility.

ES: I meant that in order to their work, they collect info. What we allow to be done with that info is a legal, cultural issue.

Q: Are we inherently critical thinkers? If not, putting info out there may not lead to good decisions.

ES: There’s evidence that we’re born to react quickly. Our brains can be taught reasoning. But it requires strong family and education.

Q: Should there be a bill of rights to simplify the legalese that express your privacy rules?

ES: It’s a fight between your reasonable point of view, and the lawyers and govt that regulate us. Let me reassure you: If you follow the goal of Google to have you as a customer, the quickest way to lose you is to misuse your information. We are one click away from competitors who are well run and smart. [unless there was money in it, or unless they could get away with it, or...]

Q: Could we get rid of representative democracy?

ES: It’ll become even more important to have democratic processes because it’s all getting more complicated. For direct democracy we’d have to spend all day learning about the issues and couldn’t do our jobs.

JG: David Brooks, could you comment? Eric is an enormous optimist…

ES: …The evidence is on my side!

JG: David, are you as sanguine that our politicians will learn to slow their thinking down, and that Americans have the skills to discern the crap from the true.

David Brooks: It’s not Google’s job to discern what’s true. There are aggregators to do this, including the NYT and TheBrowser. I think there’s been a flight to quality. I’m less sanguine about attention span. I’m less sanguine about confirmation bias, which the Web makes easier.

ES: I generally agree with that. There’s evidence that we tend to believe the first thing we hear, and we judge plus and minus against that. The answer is always for me culture, education.

Q: Will there be a breakthrough in education?

ES: Education changes much more slowly than the world does. Sometimes it seems to me that education is run for the benefit of the teachers. They should do measurable outcomes, A-B testing. There’s evidence that physics can be taught better by setting a problem and then do a collaborative effort, then another problem…

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October 12, 2009

Lessig’s “Against Transparency”: A walkthrough

I’ve been in a small round of email among friends, arguing over exactly what Larry Lessig means in his article in The New Republic titled “Against Transparency.” It is a challenging article for those of us who support government transparency, and Larry is obviously both influential and brilliant. So, I wanted to be sure that I was following his argument, since it is somewhat discursive.

Here’s what I think is a guide to the flow of the article, with links to the eleven Web pages across which the article is spread. (I’ve made judgment calls about where to divide topics that span a page.) The following is all my gloss and paraphrasing; let me know if you think I’ve gotten it wrong. Note that I intend this only as a guide to reading the article, not as a substitute. I’ve purposefully filed off the nuances, grace notes, and subtleties that make this a Larry Lessig article. (Note also that the italicized bits are not me interjecting; they’re the article’s own objections and qualifiers.)

Section I: Transparency is not necessarily good

[link] Sometimes, transparency that seems good is bad. (“Punch-Clock Campaign” example.)

Especially bad is “naked transparency,” which wants massive amounts of government data made available over the Internet. Naked transparency will “simply push any faith in our political system over the cliff.”

Qualifier: Most transparency projects are not bad.

[link] Transparency projects that track the flow of money and influence are particularly bad.

[link] A short history of transparency. (Brandeis)

To be helpful, information has to be incorporated into “complex chains of comprehension.”

Is that what’s happening with what naked transparency reveals? The supporters of transparency haven’t asked that question.

[link] Section II: Transparency leads to untruth

Mere correlations between politicians, donors, and votes does not tell us if the politician is corrupt.

Objection: But, revealing those correlations does no harm.

[link] Yes it does! (Hillary Clinton example.) Once the correlation gets in our head, we can’t get rid of it.

Objection: More information will chase out the bad info.

[link] No it won’t! Our attention spans are shot. You can see this everywhere. (Surveillance camera example.)

[link] Section III: How to respond

Can we get the good of transparency without the bad? No. (JAMA example.)

[link] The transparency argument is following a familiar pattern. Similarly, tech has enabled a “free content movement” that has disrupted the newspaper and music industries.

Let’s not follow that pattern in how we respond. We can’t fight the Net’s lessening of control over info.

[link] We need solutions that accept the Net’s effect. (William Fisher and Neil Netanel examples.)

[link] The solution is obvious. Transparency is inevitably going to raise false suspicions. We are prey to those suspicions because we already believe that politics is corrupt. Therefore, we need to eliminate political corruption.

To eliminate political corruption, we should enact the Fair Elections Now Act.

Caveat: The name of the act is misleading. It’s not about fairness.

Without this, we are doomed.

The transparency movement should support campaign finance reform, and should constantly remind us that transparency is not “just a big simple blessing.”

[link] Likewise for the rest of the Internet triumphalism.

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May 24, 2009

Data.gov – Symbolic of what’s right with the Obama administration

Wired.com reports that Data.gov has opened to “mixed reviews.” Puhlease. It’s nowhere near what it will be, but OH MY TOASTY GOD, our government is now committed to making public data available in open formats to anyone who wants it. As if it were normal! As if it were obviously the right thing to do! In open formats, people!

So, sure, let’s keep an eye on it. Let’s make sure the news permeates every government department. But first let’s swoon in delight.

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March 17, 2009

Open Congress Wiki

Congresspedia has become the Open Congress Wiki, where we can build transparency and knowledge together.

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November 25, 2008

[berkman] Antony Loewenstein on blogging in rerpressive regimes

Antony Loewenstein is giving a Berkman Center lunchtime talk on “The Blogging Revolution: Going Online in Repressive Regimes.” He begins by reading a short paper. [Note: I'm live-blogging. Getting it wrong, Missing stuff. And this comes out far choppier than the actual discussion.]

In the paper he says that bloggers are at risk of being silenced in repressive regimes In Antony’s home, Australia, the PM is proposing filtering child porn and “excessively violent” sites. There has also been talk of blocking euthanasia and pro-anorexia sites. Wha next? Block Hamas sites? (Antony does not consider Hamas to be a terrorist group.) Despite all this, Australia isn’t one of the more repressive regimes when it comes to the Net. Antony’s book looks at bloggers’ attitudes toward their governments. E,.g., bloggers in the Middle East generally are angry at their governments for repressing the rise of Islamic government. There is a widespread desire to make incremental change without government involvement. Bloggers everywhere are unpacking issues governments would rather hide from view. “Blogging is not in itself revolutionary but the act of expressing yourself online can be.” Many of the bloggers he met with were aware of their international audience and hoped that would bring pressure on their regimes. They are also angry at global companies such as Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google in enabling the restrictions on the Net. “International laws and norms must be applied.” We need ethical labeling on media, as we have Fair Trade labels. And it’s not just other countries that we need to worry about it. Sen. Lieberman pressured YouTube to remove videos from supposedly Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. Blogging lets people write and publish without a Western filter.”

Q: [ethanz] In your book, you look at how the rest of the world gets filtered by the Western media. You say that the blogosphere lets people see the world unfiltered. But, people aren’t queueing up to read international blogs. There isn’t enough demand for it. What’s an ideal relationship among the people raising their voices — probably not in English — and the people around the world who could change policy and structure?
A: The bloggers I met with have very popular sites within their own country. Part of my job as a journalist is to talk with other journalists and tell them they ought to be paying more attention to these voices. It doesn’t mean that they will, but it’s likely these people will have an effect. During the Olympics, over Tibet, bloggers on both sides were shouting across each other. For one thing, language is a key problem. On the positive side, newspapers ran what Arab bloggers thought about the election.
Q: [ethanz] But wouldn’t the old man-on-the-street interviews be more representative than a handful of bloggers?
A: We need both. You, Ethan, may be underestimating the effect bloggers are having on journalists.

Q: [me] Do you have examples of blogging affecting repression?
A: Egypt. Bloggers filmed torture and rape. It was distributed via mobiles. Eventually the government was forced to respond. Police torture still goes on, but now people talk about it. Also, in Iran there are far more discussions of issues such as women’s rights, religious affiliations, the Iraq War. I don’t want to overplay that, but that is going on.

Q: The effect of Al Jazeera?
A: Major. Satellite is having more effect in many ways than the Net. It reaches more people.

Q: Yes, Western media ultimately turns everything into what’s about “us.” Western media define Arabs in light of the geopolitical struggle. The press reduces my identity to whether I’m pro or against Hamas. What is a positive message we can get out about working the system to get them to report on the real cases happening on the ground?
A: The Western media sense is that the Israelis are good and the Arabs are bad. Almost all Western journalists are based in Israel. That biases them. Not every story about the Middle East has to be focused through the terrorism prism.

Q: [jillian] What about Syria? Why didn’t you write more about that?
A: I don’t the Syrian blogosphere as having as much impact on that country as the Iranian and Egyptian blogosphere does on those countries.

Q: I was born in Poland and saw the Solidarity movement go from tiny to 1/3 of the population supporting it, in just a couple of months. It was so successful not because the NY Times supported it (which it did). I haven’t seen similar movements come about through the Net or cell phones. Why is it that even though we have all of this beautiful technology, we haven’t seen anything like Solidarity happening?
A: Blogging communities generally don’t have massive mainstream support. Many of the bloggers are not dissidents. E.g., Iranian bloggers are frequently pro-regime. Blogging plays one role among many. Bloggers on their own won’t bring down a regime. Frequently the reforms are old school. It’s not easier to get people on the streets to protest. No one I spoke to is looking for a violent revolution.

My understanding is that with the advent of the Net in Islamic states, people are finding new channels to discuss their questions about Islam, instead of going to the religious authorities or your family. This is eroding the authority of traditional religious authorities. Have bloggers in Islamic states mentioned this to you?
A: Even those who criticize the state still want an Islamic state.

You say a great deal of speech comes out of the Moslem Brotherhood that represents the people better than the Egyptian government does. What should those bloggers be doing to have a bigger influence nationally and internationally?
A: There’s a struggle within the Brotherhood between moderates and hard-liners. The old guard doesn’t like showing these internal struggles. It’s not about the Brotherhood changing their message to make the West happy. To bring about greater engagement means putting a Western-friendly face on.

[From the IRC comes a strong recommendation for this post by Roland Soong about Chinese blogging.]

Q: Technology backbones?
A: Facebook and Twitter are being localized. YouTube.

Q: Should YouTube block particular videos that offend, say, the Thais. Or should they just pull out of Thailand? If they block the particulars, is that collusion?
A: I think it’s inappropriate to do this without transparency. I’d rather have them block a few sites than block all of them, but what happens next?

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November 19, 2008

Electoral Windex

WhoVoted.net tells you who voted, based on public election records. So far it’s only ratting out those dirty stinking voters in four states (Florida, Idaho, Ohio, and Washington).

Who voted and who contributed money to campaigns has always been public info in the US. But when you had to blow dust off of ledger pages in the basement of your town hall, we didn’t feel quite so exposed. Welcome to the fishbowl!

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November 6, 2008

Obama’s tech policy. OMG.

Obama has posted his tech policy.

It’s like someone who understands and values technology and the Internet was elected president.

By the way, the Change.gov site welcomes our comments.

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October 28, 2008

Crowdsourcing a fair election

Just a reminder: MyFairElection.com is asking people to sign up to report on the conditions they find at their local polling place so that the site can create a “weather map” of electoral fairness.

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October 10, 2008

Permanent links for legislative documents

Thanks to prompting from the ever-more-amazing Sunlight Foundation, the US Congress’ site will provide legislative documents with permanent URLs. That means you can link to them and have some confidence that the links will work tomorrow, which means discussion can more easily more forward. Unique IDs accrete meaning.

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September 20, 2008

Democracy’s susceptibility to software

I want to propose an hypothesis.

Suppose our new president gets serious about using the Internet as a tool of governance. So, he takes his email list and uses it to kickstart a new e-gov social network. In fact, his opponent provides his email list, too. So, let’s say we have 5M on this network. Let’s say it prominently features blogs and forums. Let’s say after two years there are 30M registered users, and some good percentage of those are at least occasionally active. Of course, I’m making all of this up.

Now, the problem the Internet has faced almost from the beginning is how to scale conversations. We’ve solved it time after time, whether it’s threading and forking Usenet discussions or Amazon’s reviews of reviews. So, let’s imagine that this new social network solves the problem through a combination of forking (or recursive conversations … see orgware [Disclosure: I'm an adviser]) and reputation, more or less along the DailyKos lines.

So, 30M people are engaged in vital conversations. Some people gain prominence in discussions on particular issues. The administration notices this. The relevant government policy makers want to engage in these conversations, because otherwise the 30M citizens feel like they’re being ignored. The emergent discussion leaders become the online points of contact between the administration and the conversations, because that’s how those conversations scale.

For example, PolarKing111 gains an enormous reputation because he writes about polar warming so knowledgeably and passionately, because he engages with all sides in the discussion with respect, and because he’s so good at representing all the various opinions. Administration officials engage with him on the site, often in a spirited back-and-forth. He ably represents the concerns emerging from the many discussions on the site. It’s a public dialogue with just enough structure, one unlike any our democracy has seen.

Inevitably, one day in early 2011, the media will discover that PolarKing111 is a 15 year old girl, but that’s not my point. My point is that the emergent online discussion leaders play a role unprecedented in our democracy. They are not elected yet they represent us. They are not members of the government yet they directly affect government. They have some power but the power comes from an emergent process. We don’t even have a word for this role.

Of course, I’m making all of this up. It’s just an hypothesis. Yet, it’s easy to imagine something like this happening, while it simultaneously being impossible to predict exactly what will happen. Nevertheless, there’s a strong possibility that some form of e-gov social network will emerge, either from the government or from the people. This social network could create new roles or processes of democracy that could well turn out to be quite important. But, just as Facebook can alter the nature of privacy by deciding whether or not to set a checkbox on or off by default, the roles and processes of this new layer of democracy will depend to a large degree on small decisions about how the software happens to work.

Democracy is susceptible to software.

Personally, I think that’s likely to be a good thing. But, who knows?

No one, that’s who.

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