Empire Builders

89 Innovative Cities; OFA's Organizing Toolbox; Amazon's Ring and the Police; and much more.

This is civic tech: Bloomberg Philanthropies and the OECD have just rolled out a report and “interactive map” showing how 89 cities around the world are building internal capacity to solve problems in new ways. (And by “interactive,” they mean, you can click on big circle bubbles and then zoom in on individual cities. Wow!)
Personal Democracy Forum Central-Eastern Europe 2020 is now accepting proposals from potential contributors.
AI vey!: Here’s a great set of annotated slides from Arvind Narayanan, associate professor of computer science at Princeton, on “How to Recognize AI Snake Oil.” Among his top examples: systems that claim to predict criminal recidivism, job performance, terrorist risks or at-risk kids. If an AI product claims to be able to predict a social outcome, he says, don’t believe it.
Emily Ackerman, a Ph.D. student at the University of Pittsburgh and a disability rights activist, had a life-threatening encounter with an autonomous delivery robot as she attempted to cross a street, and as she writes for CityLab, it’s high time tech start-ups started factoring in their impacts on disabled people before putting their products on the street instead of afterward. (h/t Malka Older)
Privacy, shmivacy: Amazon says that police can access the video from Ring home video recorders and keep and use that video however they like, Drew Harwell reports for The Washington Post. In response, Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) said, “Connected doorbells are well on their way to becoming a mainstay of American households, and the lack of privacy and civil rights protections for innocent residents is nothing short of chilling,” he said. The cameras are triggered by motion, and in addition to giving homeowners live-streaming access, footage can be shared on the Ring video-based social network Neighbors. Harwell notes, “The stream of videos often includes high-resolution footage of people’s faces, as well as labels for people homeowners have deemed suspicious, and the company advertises the system as the core of a high-tech ‘new neighborhood watch.’”
Life in Facebookistan: Company CEO Mark Zuckerberg and board member Peter Thiel had a previously undisclosed dinner at the White House with President Trump in October, Dylan Byers and Ben Collins report for NBC News. Thiel has long been close to Trump and Zuckerberg often defends his presence on the Facebook board as evidence of his commitment to “diversity.”

A new report from Amnesty International titled Surveillance Giants argues that the “surveillance-based business model of Facebook and Google is inherently incompatible with the right to privacy and poses a systemic threat to a range of other rights including freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of thought, and the right to equality and non-discrimination.”

Related: Marci Harris, co-founder of PopVox, reports from the annual World Forum on Democracy that, “A world conversation about the health and future of democracy kept coming back to decisions being made in Menlo Park and Mountain View ‘by a small group of men — and they are mostly men,’” as one observer put it. “Platforms have replaced our parliaments,” the head of Reporters Without Borders told the assemblage. Harris reports that many of the delegates in attendance, from places ranging from Pakistan to Cote d’Ivoire, complained that Facebook, in particular, had no offices in their country and thus they had no meaningful way to make their concerns known to the company. Older empires at least had to send tax collectors out to the countryside; now they just collect the data automatically.
Tech and politics: Google has announced that it will restrict how political advertisers can use its targeting tools. While the company has never enabled “granular” microtargeting, it now says it will be “limiting election ads audience targeting to the following general categories: age, gender, and general location (postal code level). Political advertisers can, of course, continue to do contextual targeting, such as serving ads to people reading or watching a story about, say, the economy.”
The Tuesday Company, one of several progressive tech start-ups incubated by Higher Grounds Labs, has acquired the VoteWithMe app, Jonathan Shieber reports for TechCrunch.
Many nonprofit think-tanks focused on technology policy receive significant funding from companies like Google and Facebook, Daniel Stoller reports for Bloomberg Law. Among the organizations, he covers the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Future of Privacy Forum, Access Now, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Brookings Institution, the Cato Institute, and the American Enterprise Institute.
Google has hired an anti-union consulting firm, IRI, to help it deal with spreading employee unrest, Noam Scheiber and Daisuke Wakabayashi’s report for The New York Times. This comes after reports that the company installed an extension on its employees’ web browsers flagging internal calendar events requiring more than 10 meeting rooms or 100 participants, which many employees believe was done to crack down on potential organizing efforts. Employees curious about that new extension searched the calendar of the HR official responsible for the change and discovered that she was meeting, along with other company staff, with the firm.
Organizing for America, which has now merged with former Attorney General Eric Holder’s All on the Line anti-gerrymandering effort, has posted six years’ worth of its organizing materials online under a Creative Commons non-commercial license. Whatever else one might say about OFA, this is a remarkable resource for organizers and will likely also be of great use to historians.

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