It’s Time for a Mobilization

Think bigger, my friends: The Internet is core infrastructure now, make it free.


This is civic tech: While the annual TICTeC conference, which was supposed to take place in Iceland next week, was physically canceled, mySociety, its host, has announced the schedule for two days of virtual conferencing taking place next Tuesday and Wednesday. They’re going to be using Zoom, plus Sli.do for crowdsourcing audience questions and Google Docs for collaborative note-taking. Matt Stempeck and I will be speaking Tuesday on how to last in civic tech.

Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, the founder of SumOfUs, is becoming the new president of New Media Ventures, a key funder of progressive tech and advocacy. Here are her initial thoughts on taking over as the COVID-19 pandemic rises.

Want to help NYC deal with the coronavirus and have tech skills? This Slack is for you.

Meet Jennifer, an AI-powered chat bot that responds to frequently asked questions about coronavirus that was built and deployed in less than a day.

A couple hundred US political scientists have written an open letter urging several key steps to guarantee free and fair democratic elections this November, including “(1) polling place modification and preparation; (2) expanded early voting; (3) a universal vote-by-mail option; (4) voter registration modification and preparation, including expanded online registration; and (5) voter education and manipulation prevention.”

On the Great Pandemic: “This isn’t a temporary disruption. It’s the start of a completely different way of life,” writes Gideon Lichfield, the editor in chief of MIT’s Technology Review. At least for the next 18 months, until a working vaccine might be available, we may need to live at least two months on strong social distancing and one month off, as the virus gets controlled and then re-spikes, with much more intrusive surveillance of everyone’s health throughout.

In the same context, here’s economist James Galbraith arguing in The Nation that we aren’t thinking big enough about what kind of national mobilization it’s going to take to get through this crisis. Among his suggestions (which, trust me, will kinda blow your mind): “All the information services should now be drafted and basic customer bills should suspended for the duration: cable, cellular, landlines, Internet. Let the federal government compensate the companies for basic costs. Having secure communications and entertainment will help keep people at home.”

Those of us who have been saying for a long time that high-speed Internet access should be treated like the dial-tone—available to everyone for free or very low cost—maybe now is our moment. At a minimum, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel says it’s high time to expand the agency’s E-Rate program, which funds broadband for educational purposes. (No child left offline?)

The White House is actively talking to Facebook, Google and other tech companies about using anonymized user data to track the spread of coronavirus, Tony Romm, Elizabeth Dwoskin and Craig Timberg report for The Washington Post. “A task force created by tech executives, entrepreneurs and investors presented a range of ideas around disease mapping and telehealth to the White House during a private meeting Sunday. The discussions included representatives from tech giants, including Apple and Google; investors led by the New York-based firm Hangar and well-known Silicon Valley venture capitalist Ron Conway; public-health leaders from Harvard University; and smaller telehealth start-ups like Ro, two people said.”

Our old friend Nancy Scola points out in Politico that this is a double-edged sword for big tech, writing, “Arguably the single most powerful tool at their disposal, their growing troves of data on every American user, is exactly the thing their customers have grown worried about. They’re fighting the perception that they’re Big Brother — which, in a pandemic, that’s exactly why they’re useful.”

Technosociologist Zeynep Tufekci explains  in the New York Times why telling the public that face-masks don’t help stop coronavirus backfired. The truth is masks can help provide some protection, though they aren’t a perfect solution. Along with hand-washing and social-distancing they can reduce transmission rates. So wear a mask when you are out, even a home-made one if that’s all you have.

Is streaming a pre-recorded program live on Facebook, Periscope and Twitch, featuring music from Neil Young and speeches from surrogates, the equivalent of a campaign rally? That’s what Bernie Sanders campaign did Monday night, as Makena Kelly reports for The Verge. But let’s not call this a “rally.”

Homebase, a free scheduling and time tracking tool used by 100,000+ local businesses and their hourly employees, is sharing real-time internal data from more than 60,000 customers in the US on the decline in economic activity and the numbers are stark. On Tuesday, three in ten employees who would normally go to work did not.

Zooming is booming, write Taylor Lorenz, Erin Griffith and Mike Isaac for the New York Times. But you knew that already. What you may not have yet experienced is trolling or heckling on Zoom. Tuesday night, a virtual house party that I was on was rudely interrupted by several anonymous hecklers spewing vulgar and anti-Semitic comments (the host organization, a PAC called the Jewish Vote, said that they were experiencing an upsurge in such attacks). And an open “happy hour” that tech reporter Casey Newton runs with investor Hunter Walk was also live-bombed with explicit content, as Josh Constine reports for TechCrunch. Tighten up your security settings and require some form of advance registration, Zoomers!

End times: Also, if you are using Zoom, think twice about being this guy. (Make sure your sound is on, and h/t to Kasia and Matt’s Quarantime.)

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