Making Progress

Transparency wins from the old Congress and new one; how much of the internet is fake; and more.

  • This is civic tech: Manny Yekutiel, the founder of Manny’s, a new civic engagement space in San Francisco’s Mission District, takes to the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle to explain his hub’s mission (“reverse corrosive incivility”) and defend his space from attacks from the left and right.

  • In a little-noticed but important victory for transparency proponents, on December 21 the US House passed the OPEN Government Data Act (following early Senate action), requiring that public information be open by default to the public in a machine readable format, Alex Howard reports. The new law also requires that federal agencies use evidence when they make public policy.

  • Related: The incoming House Democratic majority is bringing back the rule requiring that major legislation be made public for at least 72 hours prior to a vote, as NPR’s Susan Davis reports. (h/t Ellen Miller)

  • Apply: In the UK, Dot.Everyone is offering grants of up to £500 to “make it easier for people who are often excluded from tech events to attend them, speak at them and help run them.”

  • Submit: The annual Code for America Summit, which is May 29-31 in Oakland, is looking for proposals for talks and panels, due January 11.

  • Long-read: Writing for Foreign Policy magazine, Sean MacDonald and An Xioa Mina make a convincing argument that we are now living in the the internet’s “Warring States Period,” whose early signs were website blocking by individual countries and whose larger contours are being defined by sovereign powers “exerting their authority through a more diverse array of direct and indirect means, including taxation, data protection regulation, surveillance, artificial intelligence, and a range of speech and privacy interventions to control people’s online activities.” MacDonald and Mina have also started a bimonthly newsletter called DigitalPolitik.

  • Related: Li Yuan of the New York Times reports on censorship factories in China.

  • An ironic counterpoint to all the efforts by governments to control online behavior: More than half of internet traffic is fake, Max Read writes for New York magazine. That includes metrics, businesses, and content. (For a deeper dive into this topic, check out this tweet-stream from Bram Zucker-Scharff, the director of ad tech for the Washington Post.)

  • Life in Facebookistan: Karen Gullo and Jillian York of EFF report that Facebook has responded to a broad demand from global civil society organizations seeking to make the company more accountable and transparent about platform content moderation practices. They write that Facebook is making progress, “providing more details about alleged violations of community standards when notifying users about content removal. The company also says it has upped its data reporting game.” But they add that the company still needs to be more transparent about what kind of content it removes and at whose behest.

  • Tech and politics: Democratic party leaders and techies are still locked in a heated argument over proposals to revamp how the party handles its massive voter file. A new paper drafted by a group led by Genevieve Thiers of New Founders attempts to summarize the situation and offer a path forward.

  • Related: Billionaire Reid Hoffman financed a secret effort in 2017 to build a “false flag” digital campaign seeking to siphon votes away from Republican senate candidate Roy Moore in Alabama, The New York Times Scott Shane and Alan Blinder reported late last month. Hoffman has since apologized for funding the project, which was run through a company called American Engagement Technologies headed by Mikey Dickerson, who had formerly worked for the US Digital Service under the Obama administration, but this story has complicated his efforts to gain traction for his $35 million proposal to build a new voter file system for Democrats. Here’s Hoffman’s statement on Medium.