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February 10, 2012

Power politics in the age of Google

[live-blogged yesterday] I’ve come in 30 minutes late (Sorry! I had it marked wrong on my schedule) to a panel at the Kennedy School about politics and the Net. The panel is outstanding: Susan Crawford, Micah Sifry, Nicco Mele, Alexis Ohanian [reddit] and Elaine Kamarck, moderated by Alex Jones.

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.

As I enter, Susan is saying that SOPA was put forward to make PIPA [Senate version] look reasonable, but it obviously backfired. But, she warns, the type of concerted effort that defeated SOPA is special and rare; we can’t count on it happening again.

Nicco says that Google has doubled its lobbying budget, spending $10M this past year. But it hasn’t made much of a dent against the tight relationships among the entertainment industry lobbyists and Congress. “This is not the end of this issue,” he says, referring to the battle over Hollywood content. “It’s more like a battle in the middle of the opening third.” He adds, “The power of the grassroots to shape and drive the debate…was a shock to the insular world inside the Beltway.”

Alex: Suppose there had been the outcry but not the going dark? Was it going dark that did it?

Nicco: It was an expression of the intensity of the situation. It might have had the same outcome. Google didn’t go dark and drove a huge amount of traffic to anti-SOPA sites.

Susan: Google joined a parade smaller sites like Reddit.com had started.

Alex: Is this a watershed moment?

Elaine: No. Sometimes DC gets things wrong. E.g., a Medicare bill was repealed after 16 months because the seniors went nuts about it. This was pre-Internet. “Old ladies were throwing rotten eggs at Dan Rostenkowski.” Also, in 2006 there were local protests against a bipartisan immigration reform law. SOPA was a perfect example of a bunch of old guys — Chris Dodd et al. — not understanding that they were playing with fire. They didn’t take into account the intensity the Net citizens felt. There’s nothing fundamentally different from what we’ve seen before: Sometimes the folks in Washington just don’t get it.

Alex: We tried to get people on the other side to join us, but I’ll take their side. An op-ed yesterday said that the anti-SOPA digital tsunami was an abuse of democracy.

Micah: That was a frustrating op-ed because he doesn’t imagine that the citizens who were linking and faxing had agency. He assumes they were all duped by Google etc. Citizens can inform themselves, make up their minds, and take action. That said, I think it’s worth noting that some of these companies have immense power. It’s fair to ask how far can they responsibly use that power? I’d argue that most of these companies are in a more responsive relationship to their users than much of old media, especially not Hollywood and the recording industry. They are far more likely to listen to their customers and respond to them. Also, anyone who raises the issue of abusive media power needs to be asked how Fox News helped create the Tea Party Movement, cheerleading people to go to the first rallies. The media coverage on Fox took place before the manifestation of what it was “covering.” For me the fact that the anti-SOPA movement was a civic-commercial hybrid is fascinating.

Alex: Truman ordered the Army to bust up a train strike. Google and the Web overall have become the nervous system of the world. At what point does the power of a privately owned nervous system becomes so great that its even considering withholding services becomes inappropriate?

Alexis: The op-ed was malarkey. All sites are made equal, so if Wikipedia closed down for a week, there would be a new instance of it almost immediately. Likewise if the search engines went down. It is such a frictionless market.

Susan: Legally, infrastructure like transportation and physical access lines is different from the content. When it comes to train line or someone providing cable access to your home, there are extraordinarily high start-up costs. They can be natural monopolies since it may not make sense to have more than one. Google is not a natural monopoly.

Elaine: Laying a transatlantic cable is a big, expensive undertaking. Those infrastructure companies are governed like utilities. The Net access providers claim that they should be able to charge Google more for carrying their content, and that battle will play out over the next decade. So, there are clashes, but the SOPA battle isn’t like that. The US federal govt is not prepared to think about governing the Net. You can see this in its approach to cybersecurity. There’s a nasty cycle: cybercrime is one of those crimes you can pretty much guarantee you’re never going to be caught at. We’re not ready as a country to think about regulating the Net to prevent it. The MPAA and RIAA are really not ready to deal with this. They’re playing an old game. They and a lot of people in Washington don’t understand the issues.

Alex: What are the issues where the govt ought to be thinking about regulation?

Nicco: I don’t think we have a handle on these issues yet. Our leaders lack a fundamental understanding. One way to deal with this would be to introduce a mandatory retirement age for Congress. [it's a joke, sort of.] They’re fundamentally out of touch with how most Americans are living their lives.

Alex: How seriously should we take Anonymous? The nihilistic impulse and incredible skill?

Micah: It’s hard to generalize about Anonymous. It’s a shape shifter. I asked someone researching them if she could assure me that they’re not the Russian Mafia. She said she couldn’t; you just don’t know. And it’s not just Anonymous: the Arabs and Israelis are going after each other. We should also keep in mind that on sites like Reddit.com and CraigsList.com you get daily acts of altruism.

Susan: User empowerment/agency is almost always the right reaction to bad acts and bad speech.

Alex: How about identifying malefactors?

Micah: It’s a good thing you can’t. If we reengineered the Net so you could, the people who would be hunted down would mainly by dissidents. It’s a double-sided sword.

Elaine: You’ve expressed the Zeitgeist of the Net. At some point, criminals will get smarter and will steal billions of dollars from people on Facebook. There’s a crisis point for the Net coming. It won’t be shut down, but it will fundamentally change. It’s not inconceivable that in 20 yrs will have a different Net because people will demand it because someone will have stolen thousands of dollars from us all, or they will withdraw from the one Net and instead will form cloistered nets.

Susan: I agree. There will be a meltdown and people will react with fear. We need to train our reps to understand what the Net is so that they can have an intelligent response.

Alexis: People are afraid of hackers. But the problem is that security is terrible. Banks need to take online security much more seriously.

Alex: Has Wikileaks changed the way people share info?

Susan: The State Dept. no longer shares cables with the Defense Dept.

Alexis: The weak point is always human.

Micah: When I hear you talking about criminals attacking the banks, I think the criminals are running the banks. We’re moving away from trust in centralized institutions and more trust in ourselves. I mentioned Kickstarter.com at the start of this panel [missed it!], and it’s taking off to the extent that in Detroit they’re starting to refer to it as a grassroots WPA. Nicco and I think that the anti-SOPA moment was different because it wasn’t just a shout, but it was when a large community began to realize its own power to shift how things work.

Elaine: Seniors aren’t an interest group?

Micah: Yes, but they worked through a single lobbying group.

Susan: Now they have network.

Alex: But you said we can’t do this too many times…

Suan: But now that the Internet community can see itself, it is forming new associations and networks…

Alex: Hollywood doesn’t seem interested in working together…

Alexis: Hollywood should see the Net as another channel to make money. 10% of the entries at Sundance this year were funded by fans via Kickstarter.

Alex: The anti-SOPA group spanned politics. Matt Drudge was part of it. Are either the Dems or the Repubs better at this?

Alexis: It’s become a political issue.

[And just under the wire, Micah gets in a Google-Santorum joke.]

Q: The Net can be brought down any time…
Susan: It would be extremely difficult to bring it down. The root servers are echoed all over the world. The real risk is that physical cables between companies can be cut. We have too few Internet providers. The great thing about the Net is that it works just well enough — a best-effort network. The NSA has a tremendous amount of info about the threats and attacks. That info should be shared with the operators of the networks and banks in ways that are safe for them so they can cooperate. But you don’t want to burn the village to save it.

Q: What are the lessons from SOPA for citizens and for smaller sites?
Alexis: It’s easy to put up a one-off site to help organize and get attention. That just takes some html and a good idea.
Nicco: How much do you think of Reddit as a political force?
Alexis: It’s not. The people there are. The SOPA protest bubbled up from subreddits. At that point it got the attention of the staff. For us, it was 12 hours of lost revenues, but traffic was up the next day. We built Reddit as a meritocracy. We strive to make sure that if something comes to the front page, it’s genuinely popular.

Nicco: The point of the Constitution is to regulate lunatic populism.

Elaine: No, you take populism into account when governing.

Nicco: Someday Reddit’s mgt may be faced with a decision about going against the community’s preferences.

Alex: The huge anti-SOPA outpouring was only about 10M, which is less than a plebiscite.

Elaine: This is an issue with no clear answer. They heard the outcry, and the reps who had signed on without reading the bill pulled back. This happens not just with Net issues. E.g., Cap and Trade.

Q: [me] Is there a Net constituency, Net values, and does the Net shape political consciousness?
Micah: We’re seeing a change in consciousness: a willingness to dig and share. The Net is conducive to those values, although not everyone who uses it will share those values. But many of these sites have constituencies. This is a sharing economy. The Net is enabling something that was always there in American culture: barn raisings, rent sharing. And some of the things you can do are organically natural: I don’t think you can convince 75M American teens that they’re all thieves. And they’re going to be voters. They’re going to ask what sorts of businesses they can build on top of that sharing.

Q: Alexis, how have you been tweeting during this panel?
A: Katrina has been tweeting in my name. That’s trust!

Q: Tim Wu has made a compelling argument that historically information empires start out open and then become monopolies. Google is young and it’s already finishing our sentences [auto-complete], which is a powerful way of shaping consciousness. The more people are searching, the easier it is to improve your service, so there are economies of scale in search. Hence, monopolies could emerge that have serious barriers to entry.
Nicco: The history of personal computers + connectivity is about empowering individuals and making it easier for small things to destroy big things. I’m not convinced that Google’s advantage is large enough to make it a monopoly.
Micah: I worry that Google can manipulate search results in undisclosed ways. If they favor results that favor their own products, which they’re starting to do now, they’re taking a risk. Their value is that they give us the best results, and if they don’t do that, other sites may get traction. And if they start favoring their own products they can be accused of antitrust violations. They have immense power and I don’t see how to get them to be more transparent without giving up trade secrets.
Alexis: We’re allies with Google as a matter of convenience. If they started lobbying in DC against Net interests, everyone would abandon them. And we think when it comes to building products, we could beat ‘em.

Q: Google is becoming a content producer. Might they switch to pro-SOPA?
Alexis: I don’t know, but if they did, we’d line up against them.

Q: People in this room could switch search engines, but for many people, it’d be harder.
Susan: There’s something about the Google logo that’s like the clown in a horror movie. They haven’t broadened their model beyond targeting ads. Antitrust authorities look at Google very hard. The FTC and DoJ are watching.

Q: Why didn’t Facebook protest SOPA?
Micah: FB is one of the more serious monsters. They signed onto some of the letters but there was no serious activity by the leaders. They want to get into China and don’t want the Chinese govt to think they’re a platform for dissension. Interpret all their actions in that context.
Susa: They see themselves like a media property. They’re the ESPN of the network. Watch FB’s relationship with the carriers. They’re going to want special treatment so that FB becomes the Internet for you. AOL tried it and Americans loved it.

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February 3, 2012

W. Craig Fugate is the Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He’s giving a keynote.

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.

“Technology is not magic,” he says. “Cyberattacks might destroy our way of life? You mean we might be reading books that don’t have screens.” [He's doing a light opening, but jeez that's really not what's at stake in cyberattacks.] The question is, he says, what does social media really do for us. “I’m in the business of trying to change outcomes. Disasters happen. I can’t stop ‘em…I’m dealing in an environment where something has happened. If we do nothing, it will follow a predictable course: it’ll probably get better” because people aren’t going to wait around for us to save them. So, you have to ask what part of the outcome you’re going change. Will fewer people die? How quickly can we reestablish particular functions? Is it going to be safe and secure? Can we get to the injured or trapped? Can we create critical infrastructure fast enough to keep people alive long enough for recovery to begin?

He points to the dynamic between first responders who focus on saving individuals and the humanitarian organizations that take a more systematic view. It’s forests vs. trees. But that means you have to decide what outcomes you’re trying to change and what constitutes success.

Social media can be seen as a publishing activity: posting for anyone to see. If people are doing that, can we look at that info and get a better outcome? Well, what info do you need to get a better outcome? When Joplin was hit by a tornado what social media info could affect an outcome we’re trying to achieve? “No tweet stops bleeding.” The question is what info will help actual outcomes.

“All disasters are local,” Craig says. Local government generally has day-to-day responsibility for emergencies, e.g., 911. If the disaster gets bad enough, it goes to the state level, and then to the federal. FEMA looks initially primarily for reliable assessments. E.g., we screwed up the response to Katrina because we didn’t know how bad it was. It takes 12-24 hours to get someone into a disaster area. “Social media will only speed up the confusion cycle” [?] There’s a 24-hour window for changing the outcome of the seriously injured, generally. So, we have to assess far more rapidly. “Maybe we should assume that if something is bad has happened, it’s bad.” Get people in without waiting for an assessment. “Technology gives you a sense of precision” that is unwarranted. But isn’t over-responding wasteful? “Yes, but we’re looking at lives.”

During the Joplin tornado, tweets were coming in, then videos from storm chasers, indicating that there were more tornadoes happening. FEMA sent in aid before the official assessment. “We looked at social media as the public telling us enough info to suggest that this is worse than we thought, to enable us to make a decision to get moving without witing for a formal request or for formal assessments.” “All I need is enough info to hit my tipping point.” He doesn’t need screens filled with info. In emergency centers, the big screens are “entertainment.”

People panic. How can you trust their tweets, etc.? No, the public is a resource, he says. Is the public voice consistent and always right? No, but who is. It’s just a tool, and it can help change outcomes. “I don’ care about the tech. I care about what people use to communicate,” if it can help him make a decision faster, and not necessarily more accurately. The social media tools “are how people communicate.” It’s not a matter of listening and responding to every voice, but getting aggregate assessment real-time on the ground.

“Social media weren;t around for Hurricane Andrew. It was just scratching the surface in 2004. How will people communicate in 2016.” He holds up his mobile phone. “This is how. Mobile, geocoded, fast…” What matters is how people communicate; don’t get wedded to the tech.

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[tech@state] State Department conference on real-time data

I’m at a State Department conference at Georgetown U about real-time data. I’m unfortunately going to have to miss a chunk of the afternoon due to another obligation.)

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.

After a welcome by Dean Paul Schiff Berman, Ambassador Janice Jacobs — Ass’t Sect’y for Consular Affairs — talks about the importance of the Net and real-time awareness to State’s mission. She says she joined before email and Skype, when international phone calls were expensive. “Now we use Facebook, Twitter and blogs in ways we could not have imagined.” State uses the Net for internal communication and to communicate with us. In the old days, urgent messages were disseminated by “wardens,” designated residents who would spread the word to their neighbors. On Dec. 22 of this year, the American consulate in Mexico, urgent warnings about buses were posted on Twitter. Journalists have tweeted before being arrested in other countries, alerting the embassy. American passengers on the shipwrecked cruise liner updated their Facebook pages, and that info made its way to the embassy that could help them. When there’s an emergency, the Bureau of Consular Affairs creates a task force that sets up the appropriate social media, and has created databases of info for victims. She ends by quoting Steve Jobs: “We need to be willing to stay foolish.” [As always, my liveblogging is far choppier than her actual talk.]


(Check @travelgov to see how the bureau is using Twitter.)

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February 22, 2011

Eszter Hargittai and Aaron Shaw are giving a Berkman lunchtime talk titled “The Internet Young Adults, and Political Engagement around the 2008 Elections.” It’s a collaborative work between Northwestern U (where Eszter is) and Berkman (where Aaron is). What did the Obama campaign mean for the Internet’s effect on engagement of young people?

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.

Research generally summarizes the story of youth’s engagement as a sad one: A downward trend over the past 50 years. Most of the previous research has suggested that the Net is a “weapon of the strong”: those from higher income levels and more social capital tend to make more and better use of the Net. But does the Net impact political engagement directly? Uniformly? What factors and processes matter more than others. There is little agreement on these questions in the literature so far.

They looked at four outcomes or models: 1. Online political cognitive engagement: How much info-seeking on the Net do you do about politics? 2. Civic engagement: Do you volunteer in the community. 3. Voting. 4. Political action more broadly defined.

Eszter gathered data from the U of Illinois in Chicago. It’s one of the more racially diverse campuses. She went to the only course required everyone on campus. (There are 86 different sections, so it was a lot of work to gather the data.) It was a paper-pencil survey, not online, because she did not want to worry about who has access to the Net and who is comfortable donig things on line. Of the 1,115 students, the research focused on the 1,000 who were eligible to vote in the 2008 election. About half are first generation college students, 11% African-American, 25% Hispanic. About 60% voted, compared to 62% nationally. Eszter and Aaron are not claiming this is representative of the nation. the controlled for partisanship, political interest, and political knowledge, using “pretty standard” ways of measuring this. She presents the data on the extent of their Net usage; everyone had already been online. [You'll have to check the study for the actual data. I can't possibly type that fast!]

1. Online political cognitive engagement. They looked at whether the kids are reading blogs, commenting on them, involved in online discussions, forwarding info, etc. About 40% visited blogs (etc.) on political topics, and 16% commented on them. Women were less likely to participate. Race and ethnicity and parental education didn’t seem to matter. Political capital (= interest in politics) and your Net skills are positively correlated.

2. Civic engagement. 81% had engaged in some form, 54% talked to friends or family about current events a few times a week or more, 33% have organized the event of a club or organization. [Again, I can't keep up with all the data. I'm cherry-picking.] Gender doesn’t matter, but Asian Americans are more engaged, as are those who score higher on parental education, political capital, and online political engagement.

3. Voting. Race and ethnicity had a positive correlation with voting. Not parental education. Political capital and civic engagement both did. But online political cognitive measures did not. Neither did Net expertise/experience.

4. Political action, which includes everything from signing a petition to being a paid campaign worker. 65% had signed a petition. 22% had contacted a political official. 14% donated money. If you count any of those, 70% have engaged in political action. No correlation to gender, race/ethnicity, parental education But, there was a positive correlation with political capital, civic engagement, and Internet experiences (particularly the use of social networking sites, and skill).

Internet mattered for all of the outcomes, except for voting. Net skills seem to have enabled the social networking that is correlated with political action.

Conclusion: Simply being a Net user is not a direct factor; the relationships seems to be indirect and differential. And were there Obama effects? Only in the political action area, and there it was pretty minor and needs more investigation.

Q: Suppose you did a longitudinal study…?
A: That would be interesting. We actually have data on half of them about whether they voted in the gubernatorial election. I’d like to get funding to go back to the students.

Q: How can you get at what shifts in access have happened that might have spiked with the Obama effect providing an opportunity to engage? E.g., social media make it easier to send around petititions.
A: It’d be interesting to follow up on what’s going on at social network sites. We only asked if people checked other people’s status and updated their own.

Q: Net use doesn’t correlate to voting but not to political action?
A: Voting is a different type of political action. The people who vote tend to look slightly different than the people who engage in other forms of political action.

Q: How about people from out of state?
A: Almost all are from within Illinois.

Q: How active is the Deomcract Club at the U?
A: Good question.

Q: Did you look at local elections?
A: No.

Q: A study recently showed something like 85% of contributors to Wikipedia were male. Did you see anything similar with online political participation?
A: I (eszter) have been gathering nuanced data on Wikipedia participation, and it’s unbelievably gendered. Women are participating in political activity less, but the gap is much smaller than at Wikipedia. My research as shown that women contribute less content online [my phraseology — don't blame Eszter!], even with fan fiction.

A: [me] Did you break this down by ideology, as well as by partisanship?
Q: We haven’t broken it out yet.

A: I would have thought that political engagement and voting would be on the same trajectory, with the same determinants. Do you have a theory about they they’re not?
A: I do think they’re qualitatively different in American society.

Q: What data do you wish you had?
A: We’re proud of this data. We have a ton of it. It’d be good to have more data about Internet engagement/behavior. We also don’t have media consumption data.

Q: What is more important for a vibrant democracy for these young people, voting or activism?
A: It’s not an either/or. The literature suggests both are important. Cf. Talking Together. Their data suggests there are lots of people who are talking together.

[I missed some questions. Sorry. Don't forget these Tuesday lunch presentations are available online as webcasts.]

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February 16, 2011

In praise of what Secretary Clinton did not say about Wikileaks

Especially when a prepared talk is being given in the midst of a difficult controversy, most of what matters is in what is not said. For that reason, I think Secretary Clinton’s speech on Net Freedom yesterday was actually quite encouraging about the State Department’s attitude toward Wikileaks. In this I seem to differ with many of my friends and colleagues. (See, for example, this thread from the Berkman mailing list. See also Mathew Ingram. Ethan Zuckerman posts his overall reaction, plus a brilliant draft speech he’d suggested Clinton deliver. Yochai Benkler has posted a draft of a paper [pdf] that — with Yochai’s accustomed astounding command of facts, law, argument, and moral insight — assails the claimed grounds for prosecuting Wikileaks) [Disclosure: I am a Franklin Fellow at the State Dept., attached to the group that works on the internal use of social media. This is a non-paying fellowship, and I feel no obligation to make nice, although I'm human.]

Secretary Clinton spent a substantial portion of her talk discussing Wikileaks.

The Internet’s strong culture of transparency derives from its power to make information of all kinds available instantly. But in addition to being a public space, the Internet is also a channel for private conversations. For that to continue, there must be protection for confidential communication online.

Think of all the ways in which people and organizations rely on confidential communication to do their jobs. Businesses hold confidential conversations when they’re developing new products, to stay ahead of their competitors. Journalists keep the details of some sources confidential, to protect them from retribution.

And governments also rely on confidential communication—online as well as offline. The existence of connection technologies may make it harder to maintain confidentiality, but it does not change the need for it.

Government confidentiality has been a topic of debate during the past few months because of Wikileaks. It’s been a false debate in many ways. Fundamentally, the Wikileaks incident began with an act of theft. Government documents were stolen, just the same as if they had been smuggled out in a briefcase.

Some have suggested that this act was justified, because governments have a responsibility to conduct all of their work out in the open, in the full view of their citizens.

I disagree. The United States could neither provide for our citizens’ security nor promote the cause of human rights and democracy around the world if we had to make public every step of our most sensitive operations.

Confidential communication gives our government the opportunity to do work that could not be done otherwise. Consider our work with former Soviet states to secure loose nuclear material. By keeping the details confidential, we make it less likely that terrorists will find the nuclear material and steal it.

Or consider the content of the documents that Wikileaks made public. Without commenting on the authenticity of any particular documents, we can observe that many of the cables released by Wikileaks relate to human rights work carried out around the world. Our diplomats closely collaborate with activists, journalists, and citizens to challenge the misdeeds of oppressive governments. It’s dangerous work. By publishing the diplomatic cables, Wikileaks exposed people to even greater risk.

For operations like these, confidentiality is essential, especially in the Internet age, when dangerous information can be sent around the world with the click of a keystroke.

Of course, governments also have a duty to be transparent. We govern with the consent of the people, and that consent must be informed to be meaningful. So we must be judicious about when we close off our work to the public and review our standards frequently to make sure they are rigorous. In the United States, we have laws to ensure that the government makes its work open to the people. The Obama Administration has also launched unprecedented initiatives to put government data online, encourage citizen participation, and generally increase the openness of government.

The U.S. government’s ability to protect America — to secure the liberties of our people — and to support the rights and freedoms of others around the world depends on maintaining a balance between what’s public and what should remain out of the public domain. The scale will always be tipped in favor of openness. But tipping the scale over completely serves no one’s interests—and the public’s least of all.

Let me be clear. I said that we would have denounced Wikileaks if it had been executed by smuggling papers in a briefcase. The fact that Wikileaks used the Internet is not the reason we criticized it. Wikileaks does not challenge our commitment to Internet freedom.

One final word on this matter. There were reports in the days following the leak that the U.S. government intervened to coerce private companies to deny service to Wikileaks. This is not the case. Some politicians and pundits publicly called for companies to dissociate from Wikileaks, while others criticized them for doing so. Public officials are part of our country’s public debates, but there is a line between expressing views and coercing conduct. But any business decisions that private companies may have taken to enforce their own policies regarding Wikileaks was not at the direction or the suggestion of the Obama Administration.

Now, one way to read this is to imagine what you wish Clinton had said, or what you would have said if given the opportunity. That certainly has its uses. But it’s essentially a daydream, for it acts as if high-visibility political speeches occur outside of political consequences and negotiations. (Ethan’s imagining, noted above, was within a pragmatic context, attempting to provide a vision for the talk.) If instead we take this speech as the result of a political struggle, then we have to hear not just the daydream, but the nightmare: Forces within the government must have been urging Clinton to take a hard line against Wikileaks and to use Wikileaks as a justification for constraining the Internet. When you consider all that Clinton does not say about Wikileaks, this speech is actually, in my view, quite encouraging. Indeed, in saying that “It’s been a false debate in many ways,” she does not narrow the criticism to the media’s participation; we are left to assume that she is also scolding elements of the government.

You say “Pshaw!” to the idea that this is a pretty enlightened speech? I understand that reaction, since this address is coming from a government that has reacted overall quite poorly to the Wikileaks leaks. (See especially Yochai Benkler’s comments in the Berkman thread and his comprehensive article.)( But that’s exactly why we ought to view the speech as a sign of hope that at least some elements of the government are catching on to what the Net is about, what it’s for, and what it can and cannot do. (“What the Net can and cannot do” is, from my point of view, pretty much the theme of the entire speech, which by itself is encouraging.)

Here’s an example of what I mean by reading the speech in light of what it does not say. Secretary Clinton does say that the Wikileaks incident “began with an act of theft.” But, she is careful not to say that Wikileaks was the thief. Instead, she refers to Wikileaks as making the documents public, as releasing them, and as publishing them. You can imagine the pressure on her to characterize Wikileaks as the source of the documents — as the thief — rather than as the recipient and publisher of them. (She does slip in an ambiguous phrase: “we would have denounced Wikileaks if it had been executed by smuggling papers in a briefcase.”)

Overall, I read the Wikileaks section of the speech as a refusal to blame the Internet, and as a refusal to issue threats against Wikileaks (and against the next Wikileaks-like site). True, Secretary Clinton “condemns” the leaks, but given the range of options for a Secretary of State, what else would you expect? That she would condone the indiscriminate leaking of confidential information? It’s confidential. Of course she’s going to condemn leaks, and in no uncertain terms.

The question is what follows from that condemnation. What followed were not threats against Wikileaks, not a clamping down on State Department security to ensure that “this never happens again,”not a retreat from Clinton’s emphasis on building a “need to share culture” within State, and not support for new policies that would put “reasonable” controls on the Internet to “ensure” that such “illegal acts” never recur, for “a free Internet does not mean a lawless Internet.” (All items in quotes are phrases I’ve made up but that I can imagine some in the government insisting be inserted.) The only statement about policies to address such leaks says that the Obama Administration did not “coerce” private companies to act to shut down (or shut off) Wikileaks; the clear implication is that the government should not engage in such coercion.

Now, we can imagine our own preferred words coming out of Secretary Clinton’s mouth, and we certainly can and should compare her statements with the actual behavior of State and the government overall. There was room for her to have gone further; I would have liked it better if she had, as per Yochai’s suggestion, acknowledged that State initially over-reacted in some chilling ways. But, in the context of the political debate, I think Secretary Clinton’s remarks on Wikileaks are encouraging, and her explicit rejection of limiting Internet freedom because sometimes leaks happen is hopeful.

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September 8, 2010

Government APIs rock

The FCC has launched a site for developers that provides APIsso that anyone can create apps that draw on FCC data. Heres the first one they list: “Over 1 million user speed tests were generated from FCC Consumer Broadband Test. This API delivers data on the number of tests, average user download/upload speeds, and more.”

The White House also launched Challenge.gov, an Innocentive-like site where government agencies can pose challenges, offering prizes for the best solutions. There are almost 50 challenges posted so far.

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May 14, 2010

Won’t someone please try this 100% guaranteed cure for incivility?

Yes, this may be a terrible idea and may have awful unintended consequences, but I’d still love to see someone try providing users with just two buttons to press after every comment on a blog that has considerable traffic: and Comments that have lots of people who hae pressed both buttons would be treated as especially valuable…

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January 29, 2010

Sunlight’s answer to the Supreme Court’s Naivety

The Sunlight Foundation has posted seven steps the government should take to help make campaign finance more transparent now that the Supreme Court has handed political discourse in the paid media to the highest bidders.

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January 25, 2010

I’ve got a Franklin Fellowship to work with the State Dept.

I’m very happy to say that I’ve been granted a Franklin Fellowship to work with the US State Department for the next year. I’ll be working with the eDiplomacy group that is working on providing Web 2.0 platforms for internal use, with the semi-secret aim of nudging State from a need-to-know to a need-to-share culture. (This is not exactly how eDiplomacy explains its charter, but it’s how I understand it.)

Franklin Fellowships were established by the State Department in 2006 in order to bring in people from the private and non-profit sectors. I’m working as a volunteer, with my travel expenses covered in part by a grant from Craig Newmark, founder of CraigsList. (Thank you, Craig!) Because I’ll be on-site in DC only a few times a month, I’ll be able to continue as a senior researcher at the Berkman Center. (I’ve also begun doing some work for Harvard Law Library’s digital lab.)

I’ve already spent time with the group. They’re, well, wonderful. They’ve already delivered tools for knowledge sharing (e.g., Diplopedia) and for connecting expertise across every boundary (e.g., The Sounding Board), and they’ve got some very interesting projects in the works. These are dedicated State Dept. employees, some with considerable experience under their belts, who are on fire about the possibilities for making State smarter, more innovative and creative, more responsive, more engaged, and more human, but always within the proper security constraints. Fascinating fascinating.

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January 23, 2010

One world government (data portal)

The Guardian has gone meta-meta and produced a single portal for exploring the data the world’s governments are dumping into the public sphere. (Thans, Doc!)

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