Asymmetries of Power

How Facebook helps hoaxers of all sorts; Julian Assange overstays his welcome; and more.


  • This is civic tech: Today at 2pm ET, NYC government’s Service Design Studio will be on YouTube Live talking about “Civic Service Design Tools + Tactics.” Register here.

  • The city of Toronto is partnering with Civic Tech Toronto and Code for Canada to develop BikeSpace, a free app for collecting data from cyclists to help improve bike parking facilities.

  • Apply: New Media Ventures is looking to hire an Entrepreneur-in-residence to help coach its new cohort of investees.

  • Holy s—, this interactive map of the 2016 election by the New York Times data team can take you all the way down to the precinct level.

  • Alana Semuels reports for The Atlantic on the corrosive effects of Silicon Valley money on the world of philanthropy, focusing on how they are changing the way local groups like the Boys & Girls Club raise money: “They’re taking their cues from [the book] The Giving Code, which recommends not talking about ‘charity’ and meeting immediate community needs, but instead focusing on ‘impact’ and getting at root causes of problems. It suggests using the language and mindsets of business, and focusing on metrics, data, and effectiveness, rather than the language of altruism and ethics. It says that Silicon Valley donors are interested in approaches to solving problems that use technology, and in causes to which they have a personal connection.”

  • Deep thinking: Writing in the Guardian, columnist John Naughton riffs on a new paper by Jack Goldsmith and Stuart Russell and argues that the internet and related digital systems have afforded “striking asymmetries of power” that may actually accelerate the decline of the United States—both because it is more technologically vulnerable to attack and because its commitment (relative to other countries) to free speech and free media also create vulnerabilities that “leave us fighting cyber-offensives with one hand tied behind our backs.”

  • Steven Johnson has a must-read feature in Wired on “The Political Education of Silicon Valley.” The piece is typical Johnson—highly readable, synthesizing complex ideas, and also relying heavily on the same cast of characters that drive what passes for elite opinion in the Bay Area: Stewart Brand, Ron Conway, Tim O’Reilly, Jen Pahlka. The one non-white voice in the piece belongs to Rep. Ro Khanna, a House Democrat whose shift from “government 2.0” liberal reformer to Bernie Sanders-esque progressive is evocative of the Valley’s move from hard libertarianism to something a bit more compassionate. The synthesis Johnson suggests—liberaltarianism–would offer people a bigger safety net (expanded earned income tax credit, free health care, no student debt) along with limited government regulation (don’t talk about anti-trust, please), the destruction of unions and other forms of job protection to allow for more disruptive innovation. Power to the people of tech, in other words.

  • Speaking of strengths and vulnerabilities, a week after being doxxed by the Daily Caller’s Peter Hasson, the boycott site Sleeping Giants reports that it has added 11,000 members to its community, been notified of 20 more advertisers leaving Breitbart, and landed on the front page of the New York Times business section. “Big thanks, man,” it tweets to Hasson.

  • Bad idea factory: Amazon’s face recognition software falsely matched 28 members of Congress’s faces with a mugshot database, the ACLU’s Jacob Snow blogs. He notes, “The false matches were disproportionately of people of color, including six members of the Congressional Black Caucus, among them civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). These results demonstrate why Congress should join the ACLU in calling for a moratorium on law enforcement use of face surveillance.”

  • New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who runs the MTA, is exploring using facial recognition technology at New York City’s bridges and tunnels, Glenn Bain reports for The Daily News. (h/t Noel Hidalgo)

  • Reporters are staking out the Ecuadoran embassy in London today, expecting WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to be evicted shortly.

  • Life in Facebookistan: Leonard Pozner and Veronique De La Rosa, the parents of a six-year-old boy killed in the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre have written an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, urging him to “treat victims of mass shootings and other tragedies as a protected group” and to provide them with direct access to Facebook staff. They point out that Zuckerberg’s decision to continue to allow hoax content about the massacre to be posted, while limiting its spread on News Feed does people like them little good, because anyone searching for Sandy Hook information on Facebook still finds that content. They are constantly being targeted for abuse from groups claiming the massacre was a government plot, noting:

    In order to protect ourselves and our surviving children, we have had to relocate numerous times. These groups use social media, including Facebook, to “hunt” us, posting our home address and videos of our house online. We are currently living in hiding….Our families are in danger as a direct result of the hundreds of thousands of people who see and believe the lies and hate speech, which you have decided should be protected. What makes the entire situation all the more horrific is that we have had to wage an almost inconceivable battle with Facebook to provide us with the most basic of protections to remove the most offensive and incendiary content.

  • In an exit memo written this spring and circulated internally, Facebook’s outgoing chief security officer Alex Stamos had tough words for his colleagues, report Ryan Mac and Charlie Warzel for BuzzFeedNews: “We need to build a user experience that conveys honesty and respect, not one optimized to get people to click yes to giving us more access,” Stamos wrote. “We need to intentionally not collect data where possible, and to keep it only as long as we are using it to serve people.” He continued: “We need to listen to people (including internally) when they tell us a feature is creepy or point out a negative impact we are having in the world. We need to deprioritize short-term growth and revenue and to explain to Wall Street why that is ok. We need to be willing to pick sides when there are clear moral or humanitarian issues. And we need to be open, honest and transparent about our challenges and what we are doing to fix them.”

  • Will Sommer reports for The Daily Beast about Facebook’s failure to keep anti-vaccine hoaxers from spreading their theories on the platform.

  • Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), one of the best legislators on tech policy in Congress and a co-author of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which has allowed tech platforms to grow to fantastic scale with little responsibility for the content that users posts, tells Colin Lecher of The Verge, “I think the ball right now is in the industry’s court with a sense of urgency. If they don’t step up and use the sword of the law to police their platforms, whether they like it or not, there’s no question that there will be additional efforts, basically built around the proposition, don’t tell us your pipes are neutral. They’re not. They’re pipes that have to be used for the benefit of society.”

  • Facebook stock dropped 24% in after-hours trading yesterday, after the company told investors that its growth had slowed in the last quarter.

  • Mark Bergen and Josh Eidelson of Bloomberg report on Google’s giant shadow workforce of temps, vendors and contractors (TVCs) who live like a “permanent underclass” inside the hugely profitable tech company, doing everything from serving meals to sales calls to writing code, but not getting health care or even free bus rides to Google’s campus. According to Yana Calou, an organizer with Coworker.org (and one of Civic Hall’s Organizers-in-Residence this spring/summer) the TVCs “feel isolated, precarious and like second-class citizens. It’s a microcosm of what’s happening in the economy as a whole.”

  • Live long and prosper: What we are all planning to wear for Halloween?