Joho the Blogpolitics Archives - Joho the Blog

May 19, 2015

John Kerry on the importance of an open-ish Internet

Secretary of State John Kerry gave a speech in Seoul yesterday about the Internet, setting out five principles of cybersecurity.

The talk is quite enthusiastic and progressive about the Net. Sort of. For example, he says, “[t]he United States considers the promotion of an open and secure internet to be a key component of our foreign policy,” but he says this in support of his idea that it’s crucial to govern the Internet. On the third hand, the governance he has in mind is designed to keep the Net open to all people and all ideas. On the fourth hand, predictably, we don’t know how much structural freedom he’s willing to give up to stop the very Worst People on Earth: those who share content they do not own.

Overall, it’s a speech that we can be pretty proud of.

Here’s why he thinks the Net is important:

…to begin with, America believes – as I know you do – that the internet should be open and accessible to everyone. We believe it should be interoperable, so it can connect seamlessly across international borders. We believe people are entitled to the same rights of free expression online as they possess offline. We believe countries should work together to deter and respond effectively to online threats. And we believe digital policy should seek to fulfill the technology’s potential as a vehicle for global stability and sustained economic development; as an innovative way to enhance the transparency of governments and hold governments accountable; and also as a means for social empowerment that is also the most democratic form of public expression ever invented.

At its best, the internet is an equal-opportunity platform from which the voice of a student can have as much reach as that of a billionaire; a chief executive may be able to be out-debated by an entry-level employee – and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Great, although why he needed to add a Seinfeldian “Not that there’s anything wrong with that” is a bit concerning.

He then goes on to say that everyone’s human rights extend to online behavior, which is an important position, although it falls short of Hillary Clinton’s claim while Secretary of State that there is a universal “freedom to connect.”

He then in an odd way absolves the Internet from blame for the disruption it seems to cause:

The internet is, among many other things, an instrument of freedom. It’s a tool people resort to in response to the absence and failure or abuse of government…Anyone who blames the internet for the disorder or turmoil in today’s world is just not using their head to connect the dots correctly. And banning the internet in a misguided attempt to impose order will never succeed in quashing the universal desire for freedom.

This separates him from those who think that the Net actually gives people an idea of freedom, encourages them to speak their minds, or is anything except a passive medium. But that’s fine since in this section he’s explaining why dictators shouldn’t shut down the Net. So we can just keep the “inspires an ambition for political freedom” part quiet for now.

“The remedy for the speech that we do not like is more speech,” he says, always a good trope. But he follows it up with an emphasis on bottom-up conversation, which is refreshing: “It’s the credible voices of real people that must not only be enabled, but they need to be amplified.”

To make the point that the Net empowers all sectors of society, and thus it would be disastrous if it were disrupted globally, he suggests that we watch The Day the Earth Stood Still, which makes me think Secretary Kerry has not watched either version of that movie lately. Klaatu barada nikto, Mr. Kerry.

To enable international commerce, he opposes data localization standards, in the course of which he uses “google” as a verb. Time to up your campaign contributions, Bing.

Kerry pre-announces an international initiative to address the digital divide, “in combination with partner countries, development banks, engineers, and industry leaders.” Details to follow.

Kerry tries to position the NSA’s data collection as an enlightened policy:

Further, unlike many, we have taken steps to respect and safeguard the privacy of the citizens of other countries and to use the information that we do collect solely to address the very specific threat to the United States and to our allies. We don’t use security concerns as an excuse to suppress criticisms of our policies or to give a competitive advantage to an American company and any commercial interests at all.

You have our word on that. So, we’re good? Moving on.

Kerry acknowledges that the Telecomm Act of 1996 is obsolete, noting that “Barely anybody in 1996 was talking about data, and data transformation, and data management. It was all about telephony – the telephone.”

Finally, he gets to governance:

So this brings me to another issue that should concern us all, and that is governance – because even a technology founded on freedom needs rules to be able to flourish and work properly. We understand that. Unlike many models of government that are basically top-down, the internet allows all stakeholders – the private sector, civil society, academics, engineers, and governments – to all have seats at the table. And this multi-stakeholder approach is embodied in a myriad of institutions that each day address internet issues and help digital technology to be able to function.

“Stakeholders” get a “seat at the table”? It’s our goddamned table. And it’s more like a blanket on the ground than polished rare wood in a board room. Here’s an idea for you, World Leaders: How about if you take your stakes and get off our blanket?

Well, that felt good. Back to governing the Internet into the ground. And to be fair, Kerry seems aware of the dangers of top-down control, even if he doesn’t appreciate the benefits of bottom-up self-organization:

That’s why we have to be wary of those who claim that the system is broken or who advocate replacing it with a more centralized arrangement – where governments would have a monopoly on the decision-making. That’s dangerous. Now, I don’t know what you think, but I am confident that if we were to ask any large group of internet users anywhere in the world what their preferences are, the option “leave everything to the government” would be at the absolute bottom of the list.

Kerry now enunciates his five principles.

  1. First, no country should conduct or knowingly support online activity that intentionally damages or impedes the use of another country’s critical infrastructure.

  2. Second, no country should seek either to prevent emergency teams from responding to a cybersecurity incident, or allow its own teams to cause harm.

  3. Third, no country should conduct or support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, trade secrets, or other confidential business information for commercial gain.

  4. Fourth, every country should mitigate malicious cyber activity emanating from its soil, and they should do so in a transparent, accountable and cooperative way.

  5. And fifth, every country should do what it can to help states that are victimized by a cyberattack.

Two particular points:

First, #2 establishes Internet repair teams as the medical support people in the modern battleground: you don’t fire on them.

Second, #3 gets my goat. Earlier in the talk, Sect’y Kerry said: “We understand that freedom of expression is not a license to incite imminent violence. It’s not a license to commit fraud. It’s not a license to indulge in libel, or sexually exploit children.” But the one crime that gets called out in his five principles is violating copyright or patent laws. And it’s not even aimed at other governments doing so, for it explicitly limits the prohibition to acts committed “for commercial gain.” Why the hell is protecting “IP” more important than preventing cross-border libel, doxxing or other privacy violations, organizing human trafficking, or censorship?

Oh, right. Disney. Hollywood. A completely corrupt electoral process. Got it.

Now, it’s easy to be snarky and dismissive about this speech — or any speech — by a Secretary of State about the Internet, but just consider how bad it could have been. Imagine a speech by a Secretary of State in an administration that sees the Internet primarily as a threat to security, to morals, to business as usual. There’s actually a lot to like in this talk, given its assumptions that the Net needs governments to govern it and that it’s ok to spy on everyone so long as we don’t do Bad Things with that information that we gather.

So, before you vote Republican, re-read Hillary Clinton’s two speeches [2010 2011] on Internet freedom.

1 Comment »

May 17, 2015

CNN’s side of the conversation

Bernie Sanders gave as good an interview as he could this morning on CNN, trying to stick to the issues as Brianna Keilar repeatedly goaded him to attack Hillary Clinton, or to comment on the horse race. She asked only two questions about policy matters, and they were as non-incisive as questions could be. Twice Sanders said that he would not personlly attack Clinton, and turned the question back to Keilar, asking if the news media would focus on the serious issues facing the American 99.9%.

Just listen to CNN’s side of the conversation, taken from the transcript:

  • You’ve acknowledged that you don’t have the cash, that you don’t have the campaign infrastructure that Hillary Clinton, say, has and certainly as you enter the race, she is the one that you have your sights set on. What’s your path to victory?

  • Hillary Clinton talks a lot about income inequality, how you differentiate yourself on this from her?

  • Your candidacy was assessed by “U.S. News and World Report” like this. It said, “Like Obama in 2008, Sanders can serve to help define Clinton and make her a stronger candidate. Unlike Obama, Sanders can keep Clinton on her game without getting her tossed out of it.” You look at that assessment. Are you a spoiler here? Are you aiming to be a shaper of the debate? Or do you think that you really have a pathway to victory?

  • I just wonder is this going to be a civil debate with Hillary Clinton? Even if you’re talking about issues and not personality or the fact that she’s establishment, you have to go after a leading candidate with a hard edge. Are you prepared to do that?

  • Trade a big issue –

  • in the Senate and now we’re looking towards the House, where Republicans, oddly enough, may not have the votes along with Democrats for this initiative of President Obama’s, something you oppose. You have come out and said this is a terrible idea. Hillary Clinton has not. She is on the fence. Should she take a position?

  • I want to ask you about George Stephanopoulos, the host of This Week, who has been in the news. You appeared on his show on May 3rd and on that program he asked you about your concerns over the money raised by The Clinton Foundation. You have said that The Clinton Foundation fundraising is a fair issue to discuss. He had donated $25,000 over three years or $75,000 in total, $25,000 each year. He didn’t disclose those donations. And to viewers, to superiors at ABC. He didn’t tell you either, even though you discussed it.

  • If you take her at her word, Elizabeth Warren’s not getting into this race; Are you looking to gain that pocket of support to Hillary Clinton’s left?

  • Overall, I don’t hear a lot of forcefulness from you; a lot of people who observe politics say this is a contact sport. You have to have sharp elbows. Even if it’s not going fully negative in character assassination

  • But are you prepared to sharply point out where your Democratic opponents have not, in your opinion?

  • Senator Bernie Sanders, thank you so much for being with us. We appreciate it.

I wish I had confidence that if CNN were to hear their side of the conversation, they’d be even a little bit ashamed of how they’re failing in their essential job.

But no. CNN’s post about the interview led with the most negative thing they could find in the interview: “Bernie Sanders casts Hillary Clinton as newcomer to income fight.”

Senator Sanders, you have your answer.


Seriously, Reddit would do a much better job interview Sanders.

3 Comments »

May 7, 2015

Facebook, filtering, polarization, and a flawed study?

Facebook researchers have published an article in Science, certainly one of the most prestigious peer-reviewed journals. It concludes (roughly) that Facebook’s filtering out of news from sources whose politics you disagree with does not cause as much polarization as some have thought.

Unfortunately, a set of researchers clustered around the Berkman Center think that the study’s methodology is deeply flawed, and that its conclusions badly misstate the actual findings. Here are three responses well worth reading:

Also see Eli Pariser‘s response.

2 Comments »

May 4, 2015

A civic-minded man

I was walking on the street in front of Wheelock College today when I saw an elderly man, nicely dressed, stopping as he walked along to pick up the plastic bags stuck in the shrubbery. “Thank you,” I said as I passed by him.

It was Mike Dukakis, whom you might remember from such projects as being the former governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the Democratic Presidential candidate who ran against George Bush the Senior.

He chatted me up: My name, what I do, etc. I complimented him on setting such an example. When I beat him to a ruptured styrofoam coffee cup, he offered to throw it out for me, but I instead relieved him of some of the trash he was carrying because Mike Dukakis. He continued on his way.

Talk about being civic-minded! What a decent, humble man.

4 Comments »

April 22, 2015

HillaryHusseinClinton.com

I registered HillaryHusseinClinton.com to keep it out of the hands of those who do not support her. For $13, why not?

I suppose I should have registered BarackRodhamObama.com just for the sake of symmetry.

1 Comment »

April 16, 2015

Hillary in the uncanny valley

As a strategist for nine successful presidential campaigns and a selectman’s race in an Indianapolis (not the Indianapolis), I’d like to offer Hillary Clinton some free advice:

Get yourself out of the uncanny valley. When you try to be sincere and folksy you get just close enough that it’s a bit uncomfortable to watch.

Say what you will about Clinton’s campaign announcement, you have to admit that the tiny vignettes were effective.

Did you doubt that they were real people? Nope. Were they charming? Yup. Would you like to see more of them, including giving the fish kid his own sitcom where he teaches life lessons to the gay engaged couple and to the woman who’s about to retire? I’m already setting my Tivo!

What was the one moment of ickiness? Clinton bringing the whole scene to a screeching halt with her announcement “I’m getting ready to do something too.” The delivery was poor and the idea itself clanged against the first minute and a half of the video: ordinary folks talk about what they’re doing, and Hillary Clinton equates that with running for president. “We’re not so different, you and I: we both do things.”

Unfortunately, these issues of personality and performance count far more than they should. So, if we want Hillary Clinton to be president (and I do), then she needs to not be “warm and approachable.” When she tries, it just doesn’t work for her.

Ms. Clinton, I have no doubt that you are a delightful person when out of the public eye. But after more than twenty years of experience, we ought to conclude that in the public eye you’re socially awkward. Fine! Lots of us are. (You know someone who’s not? Your husband. Try to avoid standing next to him.)

So, how about if you embrace that awkwardness? Let it work for you. Be a bit shy. Bumble visibly. Get angry at heartless questions, like ones that act as if you were somehow personally responsible for the murder of your friend, Ambassador Chris Stevens. When not giving a speech, stop giving the internalized version of that speech; talking points are for See ‘n’ Say toys.

But recognize that when you do speak from the heart in public, it’s still always going to sound stilted and a bit uncomfortable. Acknowledge that. Make a joke. If you can’t be comfortable with yourself, at least be comfortable with that lack of comfort. You’re super-competent and will be the best-prepared president in decades, so it’s ok for you to have a personality flaw.

Because that’s what you really have in common with the rest of us.

1 Comment »

March 22, 2015

New definition of “cringeworthy”

The House Judiciary Committee has posted a page with ten gifs to explain to the nation’s youth the folly of President Obama’s immigration actions. (Hat tip to Peter Kaminski.)

6 Comments »

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 (Publixphere.net), 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 29, 2014

Before Facebook, there was DeanSpace

Here’s a four-minute video from July 13, 2003, of Zack Rosen describing the social networking tool he and his group were building for the Howard Dean campaign. DeanSpace let Dean supporters connect with one another on topics, form groups, and organize action. This was before Facebook, remember.

This comes from Lisa Rein’s archive. I’m sorry to say that I’ve lost touch with Lisa, so I hope she’s ok with my uploading this to YouTube. The talk itself was part of iLaw 2003, an event put on every couple of years or so by the Berkman Center and Harvard Law.

(I think that’s Aaron Swartz sitting in front.)

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September 13, 2014

Something positive about Ronald Reagan

On Christopher Lydon‘s excellent Radio Open Source program, I heard him interview the historian Rick Perlstein about his book The Invisible Bridge. Kissinger tells it in his memoir.

When Kissinger was in the White House, he had to call Reagan, whom he despised. This was during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In the course of the conversation he said that the Egyptians were claiming to be shooting down an absurd number of Israeli planes. Everyone knew they were lying, but the White House wasn’t sure how to counter the propaganda.

Ronald Reagan immediately said, “Well, Henry, announce that the US will replace every downed Israeli plane, one for one.”

Yes, Ronald Reagan had a brilliant idea.

Tomorrow: You won’t believe what Sarah Palin told the Dalai Lama that changed his life forever.

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