Reinforcements

Civic tech and your taxes; BreadTube vs alt-right; and so much more.


  • This is civic tech: Fight for the Future has organized an “epic livestream” for today to highlight attention to the fight for net neutrality as advocates push to get the U.S. Senate to take up the Save the Internet Act.

  • Urban-X, with backing from automaker Mini, has launched its sixth cohort of civic tech startups with a focus on environmental applications, Ryan Johnston reports for Statescoop.

  • Two new studies from the World Bank demonstrate the value of participatory governance. The first, a look at Brazil’s 5,570 municipalities by Michael Touchton, BrianWampler and Tiago Peixoto, finds that those cities that voluntarily adopt public policy councils and participatory budgeting collect significantly more local taxes. And the second, by Fredrik Sjoberg et al, surveyed 65,000 individuals across 50 countries and found that regardless of differences in government systems and levels of development, citizens are more willing to pay their taxes when they are able to voice their preferences about spending and learn about government oversight of public resources.

  • Here’s Popvox CEO Marci Harristestimony on improving constituent engagement to the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, which she gave last week.

  • Apply: The TechEquity Collaborative is looking to hire a chief operating officer and a policy analyst.

  • Media matters: In the New York Times, Marc Tracy “reports” on a new study from the News Media Alliance that claims that Google made $4.7 billion from the work of news publishers via search and Google News, and lots of more tech savvy observers are jeering. For example, Aron Pilhofer, a data journalism veteran of the Times, calls it “nonsense.”

  • Life in YouTubistan: The most interesting detail in New York Times media reporter Kevin Roose‘s fascinating portrait of Caleb Cain, an “aimless young man” who discovered the alt-right thanks to YouTube and spent five years in that rabbit hole before changing his mind about his radicalization, is not how he found his way in, but how he found his way out. A new group of progressive YouTubers who call themselves BreadTube and who are trying to build a counterweight to the far-right have been managing to get their videos recommended to people like Cain and it appears they’re making headway.

  • Roose also reports that a new artificial intelligence algorithm called Reinforce, implemented by YouTube in the last few years to maximize users’ engagement over time by predicting which videos would expand their tastes and hold their attention, may have had a big role in pushing viewers toward the alt-right because many of its video makers already specialized in creating videos that introduce viewers to new ideas.

  • Current and former Google employees joined with LGBTQ activists last week at a San Francisco Pride board meeting to demand that the company be ousted from this year’s Pride parade, accusing it of “rainbow-washing” its corporate image, Meg Elison reports for the Bay Area Reporter. One employee told Elison, “I’m really worried that they [company leadership] don’t know how unsustainable this is. They want to have it both ways: to monetize the engagement that comes from really odious content, but to bear no responsibility for it. And all of us queers who work here see how they’re getting away with making money off people who hate us while doing nothing to stop them. Meanwhile, most queer creators’ channels are demonetized or marked ‘adult’ because they use words like ‘trans.’ Google has no right to be at Pride.”

  • YouTube’s CEO Susan Wojcicki is apologizing to the LGBTQ community, but her remarks at the Code conference earlier this week were more of a word salad than a clear change in policy.

  • Tech and society: People who study the effects of technology on society for a living are not taking kindly to Tristan Harriscall for a “new field of ‘Society and Technology Interaction'” and their venting vocally. As Sarah Roberts, a professor at UCLA who is the author of the new book Behind the Screen tweets, “Can someone please introduce Tristan Harris to…the academy? Civil society critique? Is this guy for real? I am running out of patience with each new ‘insight’ he’s bizarrely given credit for.”

  • Privacy, shmivacy: A database of photos of travelers entering and leaving the US managed by the US Customs and Border Protection agency has been compromised after a subcontractor had them transferred to its company network, which was then hacked, the agency admitted yesterday. Pinboard’s Maciej Ceglowski commented, “Well, that didn’t take long…Affected travelers are advised to change their face and fingerprints before their next trip to the United States. They will also be eligible for a free credit report.”

  • With more schools hiring social media monitoring services to read through their students’ feeds hunting for signs of dysfunction or threats of violence, education writer John Warner writes in Inside Higher Ed that “there’s no good reason to use any of these technologies. Their primary effect is to increase the anxiety students attach to school, and yet they’re ubiquitous.” One company, Gaggle, says it monitors the digital content created by nearly 5 million K-12 students across the US, according to this May article by Benjamin Harold in Education Week, which prompted Warner’s response. Hey, China, you’re not alone!

  • Related: PatronScan is working with bars to build a database of bad customer behavior which is then used by other bars to ban them from entering, Susie Cagle reports for Medium’s OneZero section. The company claims to have a list of more than 40,000 banned customers.

  • James O’Neill, NYC’s police commissioner, writes in a New York Times oped that the department’s use of facial recognition makes people “safer.” He says that the police only compare pictures of suspects to a database of arrest photos, and only after a possible match is reviewed and affirmed by “detectives and seasoned supervisors” will the cops then look at social media “and other open-source images” to try to turn that match into a lead. “In 2018, detectives made 7,024 requests to the Facial Identification Section, and in 1,851 cases possible matches were returned, leading to 998 arrests,” O’Neill writes.

  • There are lots of problems with the system O’Neill describes, from the high error rates for people of color to his admission that NYPD uses CGI to fill in the missing halves of people’s faces when only a partial picture is available, as Jake Laperruque of the Project on Government Oversight explains.

  • Of course, in a full-blown police state, all law abiding citizens would be really safe, amirite?

  • Regulation, anyone? California Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, a former top organizer for Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, is trying to advance some tough new rules protecting consumer privacy and restricting Amazon’s power over third-party sellers, but as Joshua Brustein reports for Bloomberg, she’s running into a strong headwind in Sacramento.

  • Rather than imposing onerous new rules on tech platforms that have the perverse effect of cementing the dominance of big incumbents, Cory Doctorow writes in the Economist that the way to tame Big Tech is by expanding the ability of other companies to make interoperable products that plug into the dominant companies’ offerings.

  • Claire Stapleton, one of the organizers of the Google Walkout, left the company last week and here’s the note she shared internally to mark her last day.

  • Internet effects: Close to 2,000 museum workers have been sharing their salaries on a public Google spreadsheet, Chris Sharratt reports for Frieze, and the resulting transparency showing vast disparities is shaking up the art world.

  • On Instagram, there’s a massive community of people who are really into planning, as in, making beautiful to-do lists, as Kristen Bahler reports for Yahoo Finance. She writes: “Planner Addicts are women, mostly, who spend entire afternoons charting out their weeks, often down to the hour. They color code activities by level of importance, and put little stickers, or draw little cartoons, next to what they’re most psyched about (mundane things like coffee cups, shopping bags, and birthday cakes). They write bubble letter words of affirmation in the margins, like TAKE CONTROL and YOU GOT THIS.”

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