Sugar, Sugar

NYC's Internet Master Plan; Saving Dot-Org; Sweet, Sweet Facebook; and much more.


This is civic tech: Seth Flaxman, co-founder of Democracy.works, gets a glowing profile from The Financial Times’s Gillian Tett. She notes that when Flaxman first got going, it was hard to convince people in the social enterprise sector to support efforts at strengthening voter participation. Not so any longer, she says, with Democracy.works raising $17 million in the past year.
 
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and his Chief Technology Officer John Paul Farmer yesterday released an ambitious new Internet Master Plan aimed to ensure “world-class connectivity” for all the city’s residents. Arguing that “no New Yorker should have to choose between a mobile phone bill and a monthly food bill,” the plan envisions steering the private sector towards universal service with a focus on covering parts of the city that lack meaningful or affordable connectivity. Nearly half of city households living in poverty do not have home broadband, and almost 38% of Bronx residents lack it.
 
While the report recognizes the serious digital divide in NYC and leans hard into finding ways to better use public resources to expand broadband access, it also implicitly recognizes the constraints on city resources that come with the lack of home rule, saying that where residents are underserved, “The City will offer the first seed investments in new, public broadband infrastructure. Initial investments will establish successful technical and partnership models, with private partners extending the public infrastructure using complementary private investment. In some cases, the value of bundled assets and revenue from the infrastructure may be enough to attract private-partner participation. At a minimum, the City will seek a partner who will maintain the infrastructure, make it available to operators on a non-exclusive basis, and add its own equipment and operations capacity to ensure new services become available.”
 
Potentially good news: A group of early internet pioneers led by Esther Dyson, the first chair of ICANN, and including Katherine Maher, the head of the Wikimedia Foundation, have organized a nonprofit cooperative to stop the sale of the dot-org domain to a hedge fund and instead take it over and keep it out of the for-profit economy, Steve Lohr reports for The New York Times.
 
Definitely bad news: The digital organizing group CREDO Action has been abruptly shut down by its parent phone company, CREDO, putting ten staff out of work, as Chase DiFeliciantonio reports for the San Francisco Chronicle. I emailed CREDO’s CEO Ray Morris, asking if he could explain the decision and how it would affect CREDO’s longstanding support for progressive organizations. He wrote back, noting that since 1985 CREDO had donated more than $88 million to progressive nonprofits while funding the CREDO Action team for almost 20 years. He added, “A note is being sent to members now to let them know that we remain deeply committed to advancing our shared progressive values, however beginning today we will no longer be engaging in direct activism campaigns. We will instead direct our community efforts solely through our philanthropy,” he added. 
 
Apply: Travel grants for this year’s Personal Democracy Forum CEE in Gdansk, Poland, are now open.
 
Life in Facebookistan: Company VP Andrew Bosworth, last in the news in 2016 when an internal memo he wrote admitting that Facebook’s never-ending drive to connect everyone in the world would have bad effects including perhaps someone dying “in a terrorist attack because of our tools,” is in the news again for a new internal memo that he wrote December 30th, which was obtained by Kevin Roose, Sheera Frankel and Mike Isaac of The New York Times. In this memo, he argues that while Cambridge Analytica didn’t win the 2016 election for Trump, the Trump campaign’s own masterful use of Facebook’s advertising platform (which Bosworth oversaw and thus is a shill for) got him elected. And, in terms of what’s made the memo newsworthy, Bosworth shares how he would very much like to ensure that Trump not get re-elected, but he avers that he would never tamper with its platform to achieve that end.
 
The whole memo is deeply self-serving and ought to be read with an IV bag filled with salt dripping into your carotid artery. For example, he claims that the Trump campaign didn’t micro-target or say different things to different people, but that is exactly what the FB advertising platform enables. By raising the idea of tilting 2020 away from Trump and then denying it, he is (yet again) performing the dance Facebook executives have adopted for all things political, which is to try to make all sides happy. But what’s most frustrating about the memo is what it demonstrates about the worldview inside the top echelons there: Bosworth is convinced that the real problem with Facebook is us. That is, it has no choice but to keep pumping junk content into the global bloodstream because we humans just crave it, like sugar. He writes:

While Facebook may not be nicotine I think it is probably like sugar. Sugar is delicious and for most of us there is a special place for it in our lives. But like all things it benefits from moderation. At the end of the day we are forced to ask what responsibility individuals have for themselves. Set aside substances that directly alter our neurochemistry unnaturally. Make costs and trade-offs as transparent as possible. But beyond that each of us must take responsibility for ourselves. If I want to eat sugar and die an early death that is a valid position. My grandfather took such a stance towards bacon and I admired him for it. And social media is likely much less fatal than bacon.

And no responsible company executive would ever dream of not giving the public what it wants, right?
 
Speaking of Facebook PR, here’s the saga of a piece of “sponsored” content from Facebook profiling five female company managers involved in the company’s efforts to protect the 2020 election that appeared, and then disappeared, from the pages of Teen Vogue, as reported by Rachel Abrams and Cecilia Kang report for The New York Times.
 
Food for thought: Stanford and Data & Society researcher Becca Lewis argues that “YouTube could remove its recommendation algorithm entirely tomorrow and it would still be one of the largest sources of far-right propaganda and radicalization online.” That’s because the video platform is an engine for creating celebrities, and far-right content creators use it to effectively build trust and intimacy with their audiences, “aligning qualities of authenticity and transparency with reactionary politics,” she writes.
 
Farmers in the Midwest are bidding up the price of 40-year-old tractors at auctions because they run just as well as newer ones and don’t need computers to be repaired, Adam Belz reports for The Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
 
End times: Just 28% of registered voters can correctly identify where Iran is on a map of the Middle East, a new poll from Morning Consult finds.
 
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