Digital Dark Zones

Assange's arrest; tech's presidential candidate; new legislative initiatives; and more.


  • This is civic tech: Projects like Imagine Mesa, a digital forum for community engagement launched by the mayor of Mesa Arizona, can help humanize city development and better center the concerns of residents instead of the imperatives of “smart city” engineers, Patrick Sisson writes for Curbed.com. He goes on to highlight an array of platforms like Neighborland, Patronicity, Spacehive, Ioby, Small Change and SeeClickFix that show how tech can foster meaningful civic engagement around municipal government.

  • TechCongress is looking to hire a Washington DC director.

  • Tech and politics: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been charged by the United States with one count of conspiracy to hack into a classified government computer, and British police have arrested him after he was evicted from the Ecuadorean embassy in London this morning, Eileen Sullivan and Richard Perez-Pena report for The New York Times. It is notable that Assange is not being charged with espionage, but instead with allegedly helping Chelsea Manning obtain admin privileges on a secure computer system that gave her access to the U.S. State Department cables that WikiLeaks later published.

  • Manning continues to sit in federal detention in Virginia after she refused to testify to the grand jury about her role in the leak.

  • Personal note (as I wrote a book, WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency about Assange and the open government movement): I used to be in the “anti-anti-WikiLeaks” camp, back when the U.S. government brought extraordinary pressure on businesses like Visa and Mastercard to stop processing donations to the platform after it published the newsworthy and responsibly redacted cache of State Department cables. But I lost all faith in him when he gave away access to the full, unredacted archive in September 2011, and condemned him publicly as WikiLeaks “single point of failure” in 2012 when he refused to separate himself from WikiLeaks to face sexual assault charges in Sweden. WikiLeaks ceased being a serious transparency project long before Assange threw himself into helping tilt the 2016 election against Hillary Clinton. All that said, I worry that he will not be able to present a full defense should he be successfully extradited to the United States, as there may be cases where serious journalists should publish classified documents however they are obtained but a judge may not allow him to make that case before a jury.

  • Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) should be seen as “the favored candidate of the tech and media oligarchy now almost uniformly aligned with Democratic Party,” Joel Kotkin writes in City Journal. He points out that unlike Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders or Amy Klobuchar, she has not called for curbs on Big Tech and notes that since her rise to the senate she has counted on “massive support” from tech leaders like Sheryl Sandberg, Sean Parker, Marc Benioff, Marissa Mayer, John Doerr, and Laurene Powell Jobs.

  • While longshot presidential candidate Andrew Yang has explicitly disavowed any support for white nationalists, his campaign continues to draw a lot of attention on far-right message forums, Ali Ireland reports for Mother Jones. Our very own Danielle Tomson (who is finishing a PhD at Columbia on tech and populism while working as Civic Hall’s Forums director) is quoted in the story, noting: “There’s something signaling there. I don’t know of other candidates who go on [actor] Joe Rogan [host of a populist podcast]. Yang is definitely targeting these concepts and ideas that are salient in the ‘Intellectual Dark Web‘ and internet cultures adjacent to it.”

  • Russian actors sought to find vulnerabilities in the election systems and networks of all fifty states in 2016, the Department of Homeland Security and FBI have now concluded, Sean Gallagher reports for ArsTechnica.

  • The U.S. House of Representatives yesterday voted to pass the Save the Internet Act, which would reinstate the open internet (aka “net neutrality”) rules that were briefly FCC policy. The legislation moves to the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said it is “dead on arrival” but also where three Republican senators broke ranks last year to support a resolution calling for the net neutrality rules to be reinstated.

  • Senators Mark Warner (D-VA) and Deb Fischer (R-NE) have introduced legislation aiming to reign in tech platforms use of “dark patterns” or the use of manipulative design features that subtly push users into handing over their personal data, as Ben Brody and Gerrit De Vynck report for Bloomberg.. The bill, titled the Deceptive Experiences to Online Users Reduction” Act (or DETOUR Act) would only apply to websites with more than 100 million monthly active users.

  • Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY) have introduced the Algorithmic Accountability Act, seeking to require data users to conduct impact assessments of their automated decision systems on their “accuracy, fairness, bias, discrimination, privacy and security.”

  • Thousands of Amazon employees have signed an open letter calling on their company to do more to address climate change, Karen Weise reports for The New York Times. She notes that the employees are using the stock they receive from Amazon to push a shareholder resolution on the topic, a new tactic for tech employees seeking to change company practices.

  • Privacy, shmivacy: Thousands of Amazon employees around the world spend their days listening to voice recordings captured from users of the Alexa Echo, transcribing and annotating their words and feeding the information back into the software to improve how Alexa responds to human speech, Matt Day, Giles Turner and Natalia Drozdiak report for Bloomberg. They note that Amazon doesn’t explicitly say in its marketing and privacy materials that humans are listening to these recordings, only that “we use your requests to Alexa to train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems.” Each worker parses as many as 1,000 audio clips per shift.

  • The New York Times Opinion Section has rolled out a big package of pieces on tech and privacy, something you could have known in advance if you had read the source code for its homepage, as Yuri Victor mischievously pointed out on Twitter. Or maybe the Times did that on purpose?

  • As part of the package, this interactive privacy survey of Times readers is pretty interesting. As of this morning, 43% of Times readers are not comfortable with any of the common practices of social media sites, like collecting detailed personal information, using that data to target advertising, or letting companies upload their own customer lists and then match users to them in order target them for ads.

  • This compendium of (broken) privacy promises from major tech companies and their leaders, pulled together by Charlies Warzel and Stuart Thompson, is also a terrific read.

  • Digital privacy is a women’s issue, Emily Chang, the author of Brotopia, argues, in another piece in the Times’ package. And, “Although women’s groups have defended privacy as it pertains to abortion, they haven’t yet broadly taken up the issue of digital privacy,” she notes. To better address the privacy gap, we need to elect more women to positions of power—it’s not a coincidence, she argues, that two of the top digital policy makers in Europe are women.

  • Related: Google-owned Waze, the traffic app, is now selling advertisers like McDonald’s on its ability to push ads at users while they drive past specific locations, going so far as to time the appearance of a McRib coupon on the user’s phone when they pass near a McDonald’s billboard, Greg Sterling reports for Search Engine Land. He quotes Waze’s Todd Palatnek as saying that until now, the car had been considered a “digital dark zone” because online marketers didn’t have a way to reach commuters and drivers so directly.

  • Here’s a revealing story on how one company, video-gaming giant Activision Blizzard, has used a steady stream of incentives to get its workers to voluntarily give up more of their personal health data, including convincing women employees to use the pregnancy-tracking app Ovia, which shares aggregate data with employers. As Drew Harwell reports for The Washington Post, “health and privacy advocates say this new generation of ‘menstrual surveillance’ tools is pushing the limits of what women will share about one of the most sensitive moments of their lives. The apps, they say, are designed largely to benefit not the women but their employers and insurers, who gain a sweeping new benchmark on which to assess their workers as they consider the next steps for their families and careers. Experts worry that companies could use the data to bump up the cost or scale back the coverage of health-care benefits, or that women’s intimate information could be exposed in data breaches or security risks. And though the data is made anonymous, experts also fear that the companies could identify women based on information relayed in confidence, particularly in workplaces where few women are pregnant at any given time.”

  • Life in Facebookistan: Groups that “repeatedly share misinformation” will be throttled in News Feed, and in the US the company will start including “trust indicators” to give users more information about the credibility level of specific news sources, Jacob Kastrenakes reports for The Verge.

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