Questioning Hard

Wanted in NYC: net neutrality violators; Facebook & Google's surprising defenders; and more.


  • This is civic tech: The Chicago Data Collaborative, a cooperative effort by newsrooms, academics, and nonprofit researchers focused on getting data from public agencies and making it more accessible, has just launched. The partnership includes Injustice Watch, DataMade, Invisible Institute, Adler University’s Center for Equitable Cities, Lucy Parsons Labs, City Tech, and the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice.

  • NYC CTO Miguel Gamino is asking the tech sector for technical recommendations on how it can spot net neutrality violators, Jason Shueh reports for Statescoop. The city’s “Truth in Broadband” RFI is here.

  • Related: Montana has become the first state to require internet service providers with state contracts to abide by net neutrality principles, The Hill’s Harper Neidig reports

  • Data & Society has released a letter to NYC Mayor de Blasio with detailed recommendations on how and who should serve on the pending Automated Decision Systems Task Force, which was created by the city council to dig into government use of algorithmic systems.

  • A new report on online advertising and misinformation, written by Dipayan Ghosh and Ben Scott of New America, demonstrates the widening gap between Silicon Valley and top Democrats, Cecilia Kang and Daisuke Wakabayashi report for The New York Times.

  • For a contrary take, Open Markets Institute fellow Matt Stoller argues that the New America report is “less a warning about digital ads and more a sophisticated defense of Google and Facebook.”

  • Judge for yourself: Here’s the report.

  • Apply: The Obama Foundation is looking to hire an impact and evaluation manager.

  • Life in Facebookistan: Two top Facebookers shed fresh light on how the giant company is wrestling with its effect on democracy with posts on its “Hard Questions” blog. First up with a short introductory note, Katie Harbath, the company’s global politics and government outreach director, admits that “Facebook should have been quicker to identify the rise of ‘fake news’ and echo chambers.” Then Samidh Chakrabarti, the head of the company’s civic engagement team, offers a longer post reviewing how Russian actors weaponized social media, how false news can spread online, how tough it is to challenge echo chambers, how hard it is to police online political harassment without censorship, and whether it is possible to design online platforms that enhance the participation of vulnerable or under-represented voices.

  • Chakrabarti writes: “If there’s one fundamental truth about social media’s impact on democracy it’s that it amplifies human intent—both good and bad. At its best, it allows us to express ourselves and take action. At its worst, it allows people to spread misinformation and corrode democracy. I wish I could guarantee that the positives are destined to outweigh the negatives, but I can’t. That’s why we have a moral duty to understand how these technologies are being used and what can be done to make communities like Facebook as representative, civil and trustworthy as possible.”

  • This is all true and good. And again, like yesterday’s pronouncements from the President of Facebookistan, a bit disconcerting. How are we supposed to have a conversation about democracy with a mega-corporation? What does Chakrabarti mean when he writes about “communities like Facebook”? (How can the word community even be applied to something containing two billion people?) And what does it mean to make them “representative”? While we here at Civicist totally welcome this kind of engagement from company leaders like Harbath and Chakrabarti (both of whom I’ve broken bread with in the past), their words need to be matched with a lot more transparency from Facebook about its own processes and data uses. Past behavior makes a lot of us distrustful of new claims of changed attitudes. And unfortunately, as long as the company’s business is built on selling its users’ data and attention to advertisers, it’s hard to see how the secondary social effects of informing users about elections or enabling them to organize themselves outweigh the negative effects.

  • Put another way: You could make a case that cigarette smoking is good for civil society because smokers form stronger social bonds while they stand on the street getting their nicotine fix, but if the tobacco companies used a sliver of their profits to pay to put impartial voter guides inside every carton of smokes and then argued that they were also good for society, we’d see right though that.

  • If Facebook wants to have a real dialogue about its effect on democracy, it would also be helpful if it offered some definitions. What does it mean when it says “democracy”? If the idea is rule by the people, then why ask a technocrat like academic and former Obama regulatory boss Cass Sunstein to help parse whether social media is good for democracy?

  • Kevin Roose argues that Facebook should take its design cues from Instagram, the photo sharing platform it owns, as it figures out how to be better for its users.

  • Brave new world: Hawai’i Governor David Ige knew within minutes that the January 13 missile alert was a false alarm, but it took him a while longer to tell the public because he didn’t know his Twitter password, the Star-Advertiser reports.

  • Digital security researchers in Turkey have discovered that a single line of code in a free messaging app called Block, which created a tiny one-pixel square box linked back to the company’s server, is now implicating tens of thousands of innocent Turks as alleged terrorists supportive of the Gulenist group, Nil Koksal reports for CBC News.

  • Amazon’s new grocery store doesn’t take cash or credit cards—nor does it take food stamps, April Glaser reports for Slate.

  • Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google collectively spent $50 million on federal lobbying in 2017, a record, Tony Romm of Recode reports.

  • Trump watch: The folks at Politico (specifically Darren Samuelson, Sarah Frostenson, and Jeremy C.F. Lin) have built an interactive guide to the 270 people connected by name to the Russia probe.

  • Trump’s now-disbanded voting commission paid for voting records from Texas specifically including information on voters with Hispanic surnames, Spencer Hsu and John Wagner report for The Washington Post. This after commission vice chair Kris Kobach claimed that “at no time did the commission request any state to flag surnames by ethnicity or race.”

  • Using a data exploration and visualization tool called Linkorius, researchers at Open Corporates have mapped the connected world of the Trump Ocean Club Panama, Sam Leon writes for Global Witness.