Pushing Back

The universities secretly collaborating with Facebook; scooter-share drama; and more.


  • This is civic tech: Deep in Steven Brill’s Time magazine essay on how America went into a “tailspin,” he offers a hopeful note:

    During the past two years, as I have discovered the people and forces behind the 50-year U.S. tailspin, I have also discovered that in every arena the meritocrats commandeered there are now equally talented, equally driven achievers who have grown so disgusted by what they see that they are pushing back….Entrepreneurs like Jukay Hsu, a Harvard-educated Iraq War veteran who runs a nonprofit called C4Q [Code 4 Queens] out of a converted zipper factory in Queens, are making eye-opening progress with training programs aimed at lifting those displaced by automation or trade back into middle-class software-engineering jobs. “Some of the smartest, hardest-working people I’ve ever met were soldiers who didn’t graduate from college,” says Hsu.

  • Congrats to David Sengeh, husband of our good friend Kate Krontiris, who is becoming the chief information officer of Sierra Leone, as part of its brand new Directorate of Science, Technology and Innovation. (Think 18F.) They’re looking for all kinds of ideas for partnerships, examples of what has worked (and what hasn’t), and will be holding some online town halls soon.

  • Life in Facebookistan: A coalition of progressive groups is launching a “Freedom From Facebook” campaign, calling on the Federal Trade Commission to break the company into competing networks, spinning off Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger, and to impose tough privacy rules. The coalition includes Citizens Against Monopoly, the Content Creators Coalition, Demand Progress, Jewish Voice for Piece, MoveOn, MPower Change, and Sum of Us. The group is also urging Facebook users to install the FB Purity app on their browser to reduce how much information the company collects on them.

  • Facebook’s new rules on political advertising are overly broad, a trade group for news organizations says, worrying that the guidelines would treat ads promoting articles on poverty, immigration and terrorism as political, Benjamin Mullin reports for The Wall Street Journal.

  • More than two dozen universities have signed agreements with Facebook to help the company develop new technologies, but as Inside Higher Education’s Lindsay McKenzie finds, none of them are willing to disclose any details of what they are working on.

  • In Germany, people are watching closely as a new law requiring tech platforms to remove illegal hate speech within 24 hours or face huge fines is causing Facebook to open “deletion centers” employing hundreds of works, as Katrin Bennhold reports for The New York Times.

  • Related: Last Friday at RightsCon in Toronto, a coalition of civil society groups from Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, India, Syria, Philippines and Ethiopia banded together to hold Facebook accountable for its negative impact on vulnerable minorities in their countries.

  • Also at RightsCon, Amnesty International and Access Now also issued the Toronto Declaration, calling for the protection of equal rights and non-discrimination in machine learning systems. Human Rights Watch and the Wikimedia Foundation have also endorsed the call.

  • Tech and politics: The recent revolution in Armenia was powered by a new generation of tech workers who skipped work and used their skills to topple a corrupt ruling party, Neil MacFarquhar reports for The New York Times.

  • Our Revolution, the follow-on organization to Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, is flailing, Edward-Isaac Dovere reports for Politico.

  • Welcome to Birdland: As the scooter company Bird spreads its wings to more cities, freelancers who scour city streets to pick up drained scooters and charge them overnight to earn extra income are beginning to collide with each other, leading to a new form of sharing economy messiness, Taylor Lorenz reports for The Atlantic.

  • Deep thought: Instead of institutions with inside-outside frameworks, Richard Bartlett suggests we should inspired by an idea from Madrid: building “extitutions” where a multitude of agents can spontaneously assemble.

  • Brave new world: Using facial recognition, students at one high school in China are being given a real-time attentiveness score, which will be shown to their teachers on a screen, Reuters reports.

  • Apply: The European Union’s Civic Tech for Democracy competition opens May 22. Simply send in a short video describing your project.