The Web at 30, a voting tech controversy, taxing data, and more
This is civic tech: Happy 30th Birthday to the World Wide Web! And to the author of the crazy science fiction novel universe that we are living in as a result: It wasn’t a coincidence that you placed the inventor of the web, Sir Tim Berners Lee, at CERN, the world’s largest particle physics lab, dedicated to making the fundamental particles of matter collide together at close to the speed of light, was it?
The National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) is trying to get Facebook and Twitter to end their partnership with Turbovote, the platform run by nonprofit Democracy.works that helped 6 million register to vote in 2018, Jessica Huseman reports for ProPublica’s Electionland page. NASS says Turbovote failed to process some registrations and also didn’t properly inform people who hadn’t completed their registration (a common problem). Instead it wants the platforms to use Vote.gov, a government managed site. But Democracy.works co-founders Seth Flaxman and Kathryn Peters argue that Vote.gov underserves many voters; in Texas it points potential registrants to a 26-page PDF file, while Turbovote walks Texans thru a series of questions designed to help them finish the process of registering.
Twenty-one leading universities convened by New America, the Ford Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation have formed the Public Interest Technology University Network, with the stated goal of “building the nascent field of public interest technology and growing a new generation of civic-minded technologists.” As Natasha Singer reports for The New York Times, “Since 2015, the Ford Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation and other nonprofit groups have invested more than $18 million to advance the field of public interest technology,” and that “the new university network is working to rebrand” much of their longstanding existing work, like Stanford’s program in Science, Technology and Society and Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy as “public interest technology.” New America’s Anne-Marie Slaughter, whose organization will manage the new network, told the Times that, “The idea that a young person could look at a tech career and see that as a path to working in the Justice Department, or any nongovernment organization or local government agency, as much as going to a tech company is something that I think is badly needed.” Amen to that.
It’s worth noting that two funders not mentioned in this story, the Omidyar Network (now spun off as its Luminate Group) and the Knight Foundation, have spent an estimated $76 million and $50 million respectively on building the field of civic technology from 2007 to present, supporting such entities as Change.org, Code for America, Do Something, NationBuilder, the Sunlight Foundation, and SeeClickFix and fostering the establishment of 18F and the U.S. Digital Service, and thus collectively creating the conditions for this new initiative, if not its moniker.
And a few words about terminology. We here at Civic Hall refer to the use of tech for the public good as “civic tech” as opposed to “public interest technology.” We believe that anyone, not just people with advanced degrees, can both use and advocate for the use of tech for the public good. Others in the arena refer to themselves as “community tech” or “tech for good” (or a range of other terms explored by the recent #MoreThanCode study, which interestingly found little support for the term “public interest tech”). While we of course welcome the consolidation of academic programs under the banner of “public interest technology,” we are hopeful that institutions joining the work of field building will strive for the most inclusive approach possible, and try to avoid creating the impression that this is something only elites get to do. (Full disclosure: Civic Hall has received support from the Omidyar Network/Luminate Group, the Ford Foundation, and the Knight Foundation.)
On a lighter note, let’s appreciate that the new entity isn’t called the Public University Technology Interest Network (PUTIN).
Life in the Amazon: Emergency workers have been called to Amazon warehouses for suicide attempts and other mental health episodes nearly 200 times in the last five years, according to 911 call logs and police reports analyzed by The Daily Beast’s Max Zahn and Sharif Paget and covering just one-quarter of the giant company’s network of sorting and fulfillment centers. Said one former employee who worked at a Florida warehouse and had an emotional crisis on the job, “It’s this isolating colony of hell where people having breakdowns is a regular occurrence. [It’s] “mentally taxing to do the same task super fast for 10-hour shifts, four or five days a week.” Another employee said, “They treat us like robots.”
Brave new world: A Dutch researcher exploring openly available databases in China found one containing the personal information on 1.8 million women, including their phone numbers, addresses and something called “BreedReady” status, Lily Juo reports for The Guardian. The data field, which was labeled in English, could be a poor translation of Chinese terms to describe whether a woman has children or is of child-bearing age, she notes.
In the New Statesman, Will Dunn argues that Chinese science fiction writes like Liu Cixin are striking a nerve because their stories are “emerging from a real dystopia that becomes stranger and more futuristic by the day.” He notes that “WeChat, the app used for messaging and payment by almost everyone in China, automatically blocks any message containing any banned word of phrase expressing discontent with the regime, support for religious groups or knowledge of the state’s human rights abuses. Google is reportedly helping China to build a search engine that will report its users if they ask the wrong questions.”
Privacy, shmivacy: The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency is moving rapidly to implement a “biometric entry-exit system” at the top 20 American airports with the goal of using facial recognition technology on people aboard about 16,300 flights a week (or 100 million international flight passengers per year), Davey Alba reports in a blockbuster story for BuzzFeed, working in collaboration with the Electronic Privacy Information Center. In effect, says Jeramie Scott of EPIC, “the government, without consulting the public, a requirement by Congress, or consent from any individual, is using facial recognition to create a digital ID of millions of Americans.”
Here’s one way to defeat facial recognition tech.
Related: The Trump administration is working on a proposal that would allow the Social Security Administration to monitor social media to help spot people who are receiving disability benefits without actually being disabled, Robert Pear reports for The New York Times. “It may be difficult to tell when a photograph was taken,” said Lisa D. Ekman, a lawyer who is the chairwoman of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, a coalition of advocacy groups, told the Times. “Just because someone posted a photograph of them golfing or going fishing in February of 2019 does not mean that the activity occurred in 2019.”
Tech and politics: Democratic presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar told Recode’s Kara Swisher at SXSW that we should consider taxing tech companies for exploiting their users. They “use us, and we’re their commodity, and we’re not getting anything out of it. When they sell our data to someone else, well, maybe they’re going to have to tell us so we can put some kind of a tax on it.” (Not in response, no one at any of the tech companies said they had any idea how many times Sen. Klobuchar ate salad with a comb.)
Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren announced Friday that she wants to break up big tech giants, first by rolling back some deals like Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp and Instagram, and second by requiring “search neutrality”—meaning that “platform utilities” would be prohibited from owning participants on their own platform. Her targets include Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple.
Facebook initially deleted three ads that Warren’s campaign placed on the social network because they used the company’s logo (a violation of their rules) but reversed itself quickly, Cristiano Lima reports for Politico.
Want to get on the Trump White House’s agenda? One way is to get on Fox News. Another, according to this story by Luke Mullins in the Washingtonian, is to hire S-3 Public Affairs and have them geofence their digital ads for you. For one client, “The consultants tracked Team Trump’s movements inside the Beltway and beyond. When the commander in chief was in Washington, they sent their ads to IP addresses that covered the White House and the Trump hotel. If Trump headed to his golf club in New Jersey, they beamed the ads to IP addresses there. When he went to Mar-a-Lago, they sent them to his club in Florida.”
With a bunch of companies like Uber and Lyft about to IPO, San Francisco is bracing for an explosion in real estate prices, vanity scooter purchases, $10 million blowout parties and, yes, customized ice sculptures, Nellie Bowles reports for The New York Times.. “It’s going to be a lot of 14 hour days,” Robert Chislett, founder of Chisel-it, who has around 15 ice sculptors on, um, ice as of now. We think his name is real.
End times: Just in case you need fresh video of what a click farm looks like.
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