Speech Speech

Citizens United and Facebook; school surveillance; and more.


  • This is civic tech: The Code for America Brigade community is mourning the loss of Carl Lewis, the founder of Open Savannah. Here’s something he wrote after his first year in the work:

    …civic-tech isn’t at all just about building civic apps or scraping interesting datasets. Rather, at its core, civic-tech is about building a community, a movement, a sustainable, scalable, longterm citizen-driven network of actual humans to support bottom-up innovation and experimentation in government services and technology — with the ultimate goal of restoring public trust in our local institutions, marked along the way by milestones of improved outcomes along the way.
  • Luminate’s US team says “We often ask ourselves what we ought to realistically expect from companies regarding their practices to protect users’ data and digital rights,” so they are looking to hire a research partner to “develop a maturity model to both diagnose where a prospective investment falls on a given dimension of data and digital rights protections (e.g., data collection and storage practices) and inform portfolio support or other influence strategies to elevate the maturity of our portfolio in this domain.”

  • SeeClickFix founder Ben Berkowitz tells McKenzie Smith of Luminate (which was an early investor in the civic tech for-profit) that partnering with CivicPlus, which serves more than 3,500 cities and counties in North America, “was the best chance of scaling SeeClickFix’s impact faster than we could on our own.”

  • AI for the public good? Rainforest Connection, a nonprofit started by Topher White, is installing cellphones in treetops in Indonesia to help fight against deforestation, Mike Ives reports for The New York Times. Audio AI then listens for the sounds of chain saws, logging trucks and other signs of illegal logging activity and alerts local rangers. The project seems cool and it’s garnered more than $1 million in donations from tech companies, but as Ives notes, local forest patrollers are having a hard time understanding the software and the deeper problem of rangers being intimidated by logging companies is hardly being addressed.

  • Tech and organizing: The independence movement in Catalonia is using a new digital network called Tsunami Democratic, and as Laurie Clarke reports for Wired UK, the app—which only works on Android phones—is gaining adherents because of its innovative ways of avoiding police detection and coordinating actions. Commenting on the app’s design, Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing writes, “The Tsunami Democràtic app embodies the ‘be water’ motto of the Hong Kong uprising and builds on the Sukey anti-kettling app from the UK’s 2011 student protests: it can only be activated by scanning a QR code from an existing member, and once it is activated, it places you in a “cell” with nearby users and shows you actions taking place nearby — measures designed to both coordinate protests and to limit the exposure when the police get ahold of the app. The app is a sideloaded Android app and there’s no Ios version, meaning that there’s no way for either Google or Apple to remove the app from their stores under pressure from Madrid.”

  • Life in Facebookistan: Here’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s big speech at Georgetown last Thursday explaining why he believes in giving people a voice, or as he puts it: “People having the power to express themselves at scale is a new kind of force in the world.” (Translation: Individual entrepreneurs like me have the power to profit from the data of individuals at a scale never seen before in the world.) Sadly, Zuckerberg, who is trying to have things both ways at a scale never been seen before in the world, embraces a view of free speech that would make the authors of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision proud. He says that he opposes fact-checking of political ads because “people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying,” as if a news report about a politician saying something false is the same exact thing as a politician spending millions to spread a false message dressed up to appear truthful. The Citizens United court majority similarly argued that transparency would keep monied speech in check; we can see how well that’s worked.

  • If you want one thing to read on Zuck’s free speech, make it UVA professor and noted Facebook critic Siva Vaidhyanathan’s response, an essay in the Guardian saying that he would have given Zuckerberg’s speech a B- at best if he were grading it as an undergraduate essay. And after pointing to the many factual and interpretive problems with the speech, he gets to a deeper point—that the “new force in the world” that Zuckerberg is celebrating has actually created a serious new problem we have yet to confront:

    The problem of the 21st century is cacophony. Too many people are yelling at the same time. Attentions fracture. Passions erupt. Facts crumble. It’s increasingly hard to deliberate deeply about complex crucial issues with an informed public. We have access to more knowledge yet we can’t think and talk like adults about serious things….The thing is, a thriving democracy needs more than motivation, the ability to find and organize like-minded people. Democracies also need deliberation. We have let the institutions that foster discussion among well informed, differently-minded people crumble. Soon all we will have left is Facebook. Look at Myanmar to see how well that works.
  • “Our trust in [Facebook] is sorely broken,” a group of leading civil and human rights organizations writes in an open letter to Zuckerberg, noting that despite their ongoing engagement with the company, “Facebook continues to act with reckless disregard for civil rights.” (Well, you can’t have it both ways—currying favor with conservative politicians and defending civil rights generally don’t go together.) They also add, before documenting a list of problems from discriminatory advertising to continued tolerance of white nationalist content to allowing politicians to run false ads, that, “Your meetings with conservative stakeholders have been well documented. We are deeply disappointed that you have not extended the same courtesy to the civil rights leaders whose communities are harmed by your policies and products.”

  • Tech and politics: President Trump’s re-election campaign is spending a lot more than its Democratic rivals on Facebook these days, but this story in The New York Times by Matthew Rosenberg and Kevin Roose would have you believe that “only one political party seems to have gotten the message…that campaigns are now being fought largely online.” Sorry, but let’s be careful about the hype. If dominating Facebook advertising was the key to winning elections, one needs to ask why Trump is stuck at 40% approval ratings in a fairly healthy economy. (Perhaps he’d be even less popular, to be sure, but Rosenberg and Roose’s story posits that Trump’s online operation is “a supercar” compared to the Dems’ “Volkswagen Bug.” IMHO, Trump is spending lots of money on Facebook because it’s a great way to milk his supporters for donations—but that is scarcely proof that he has a secret weapon or a greater level of sophistication about how to use digital to organize. What we do know is that Facebook’s algorithm favors emotional engagement above all, and the company’s irresponsible decision to candidates to advertise lies means that it will be a fertile hunting ground for demagogic campaigning.

  • Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan have been quietly emailing Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s campaign manager with suggestions of people to hire, Tyler Pager and Kurt Wagner report for Bloomberg. Two of the people they recommended were hired by the campaign. Zuckerberg denies that “I’m like deeply involved in trying to support their campaign,” but the Bloomberg report notes Zuckerberg visited South Bend in 2017 and video- streamed a chummy car ride he did with Buttigieg, and candidate Buttigieg has been more reticent than many of the other candidates to talk about breaking up big tech companies.

  • Facebook says it took down a network of Russian-backed accounts that were posing as American voters in swing stages that were weighing in on the Democratic presidential primary attacked Joe Biden and praising President Trump, Tony Romm and Isaac Stanley-Becker report for The Washington Post.

  • Media matters: There’s a new network of local news sites in Michigan, and Carol Thompson of the Lansing State Journal reports that they appear to be set up to mimic local news but with a right-leaning bent.

  • Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) had a secret Twitter account and so naturally, the Internet figured it out, and discovered lots of revealing things that “Pierre Delecto” liked online.

  • Privacy, shmivacy: School districts across America are monitoring the emails and documents of millions of American students, using tech companies like Gaggle, Bark, and Securly that promise to be able to find—nearly in real-time—evidence of suicidal thoughts, bully or plans for a school shooting, Lois Beckett reports in an in-depth feature for The Guardian. Because some school districts have been sued for failing to prevent bullying or suicides, the software services appear attractive, but Beckett also shows that the tools can misinterpret sarcasm (who knew?), overreact when kids have to write a school assignment about the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, and more seriously, bring down law enforcement on minority students who already face a disproportionate amount of disciplinary measures.

  • Also, one might add that making pervasive surveillance a cornerstone of K-12 education is either just a great way of preparing American kids for their future as American adults, or a very troubling harbinger of our times.

  • A global group of civil society organizations and leaders organized by AccessNow have written an open letter to international banks and aid organizations, asking “Why ID?” and questioning the need for digital identity programs.

You are reading First Post, a twice-a-week digest of news and analysis of the world of civic tech, brought to you by Civic Hall, NYC’s community center for civic tech. If you are reading this because someone forwarded it to you, please become a subscriber ($10/m) and support our work and support our work or sign up for our newsletter and stay connected with the #CivicTech community.