The State of the Internet 2019: Debrief

The first Forum @ Civic Hall, The State of the Internet 2019 took place on February 28, 2019. Anil Dash of Glitch and Matt Mitchell of CryptoHarlem/Tactical Tech both delivered addresses, followed by an interview with Maurice Cherry, host of Revision Path (celebrating its 6th Anniversary with an episode from the Forum), and a conversation with Katie Harbath of Facebook. The event served as an agenda-setting moment for this year’s Forum series: How healthy is the Internet?  What are core challenges to a just, open, and safe online environment? What can individuals, technologists, companies, and non-profits do to make the Internet better?

Core themes emerged from the event:

  1. The Internet is not a safe place for many vulnerable populations and the choices of Big Tech in the areas of content moderation, data use, and product design can have serious consequences and impact.
  2. Tech companies are made of people. Part of making the Internet and technology better is internally organizing tech workers around issues they care about and diversifying the tech workforce.
  3. Government alone is not equipped to regulate or mitigate every challenge posed to Internet health by Big Tech, so responsibility also falls to users and their choices, political organizers, and the companies themselves to make the Internet a better place.
  4. The average user can have an impact on the trajectory of the Internet by talking more about these problems in public places, but also by using technologies that are made by people and communities we can access, know, and learn from.

This document serves as a review of high-level themes from the event. The Livestream can be found here and photos can be found here.

Who spoke and what did they say?

Matt Mitchell addressed the audience first. He is a Director of Digital Safety and Privacy at Berlin-based Tactical Tech and founder of CryptoHarlem, which teaches predominantly African Americans in New York how to digitally protect themselves. His talk focused on the need to include diverse voices in building technology, especially at big firms, lest these companies prioritize profits and surveillance over humans and users. The future of the internet can be where regular people, not just big tech companies, call the shots but we have to claim our voice. A few main points:

  • Companies vs. People: We are at a fork in the road for the future of the Internet: either big tech companies run the show, or another way “where ‘the people’ run the show, the humans.”
  • Diversity within tech: There are humans inside these big tech companies too, but the numbers reported “don’t meet any kind of requirements for what would look like a diverse organization let alone like engineering or executives, just any kind of marginalized group? Very low.”
  • Products reflect people who build them: Matt asks “How do these tech firms, these companies, not look like the people who use them?” “We use their technology but we don’t ask of them to represent us.”
  • So what do we do? “Things like the Amazon HQ2 debacle” shows that “regular people, we have a voice, and we can actually make change happen. We don’t have to have this defeatist attitude that the platforms have to always exist the way they are” with the same staffing, and same causes.
  • Platforms can’t exist without us and our data: We need to claim our voice because “it’s our information that fuels these platforms. It’s our data that they monetize.”
  • Detox your data: Use the Tactical Tech Data Detox Kit to get a sense of what you use and how frequently you use it. It should not be impossible to leave these platforms.
  • There is collateral damage to using platforms, especially for black and brown folks: Law enforcement uses social media platforms to surveil certain groups, charging some with conspiracy and gang conspiracy charges just for having someone’s number on your phone or liking a Facebook post.
  • You can be safe online, but it takes a little effort.

Next up was Anil Dash, CEO of Glitch, which sponsored the food for the evening. Glitch is a community of app builders, bringing “hand-made tech” back into fashion. Anil’s talk focused on moments where the makers of technology changed the course of big tech’s behavior, and how regular users and builders of tech can reclaim an independent Internet.

  • “We are at the end of the beginning:” Folks have been thinking about the social, political, and civic impacts of technology the past 10, 15, even 20 years. There was some fear that speaking out on ethical issues meant you wouldn’t get to have a piece of the wealth, but the reckoning is here.
  • “Chicken Little:” A few years ago, if you were talking about how data was being collected and impacting life or skewing politics, people would think you were erroneously saying the sky is falling.
  • “I don’t think the moral arc of the universe bends towards good; I think we bend it ourselves.”
  • Tech Won’t Build It: Two years ago, we saw the inkling of a movement, when developers started saying they wouldn’t build a religious registry or they wouldn’t build systems like IBM built for the Nazis in the 1940s. There was a historic realization among tech workers which caused them to stand up to their employers.
  • The Google Walk-Out was “the most dramatic turning point in the history of social tech and civic tech:” It was the “first time there was an organized labor movement at a major technology company. That’s radical. That’s stunning. That’s transformative.”
  • The government is not equipped to rein in big tech: “How many members of Congress, especially before this last wave of congresspeople came, could install a smart app on their smartphone? Yea, it’s like on one hand.” Imagine if there was a member of the Finance Committee in the Senate who said, “I’ve never had a bank account; I don’t know how to use an ATM; I don’t really know anything about money but I’ve got a nephew and he’s got a bank account.” In its current state, the government is not equipped to regulate or mitigate technology. It is out of their depth.
  • Tech folks need to participate in civics more: We need more folks in institutions who are fluent enough to make technology decisions or at least share these perspectives with the public to spread the word and make themselves known.
  • Designs need to change at a fundamental level: Business practices that make more money off of more data need to change. Alternatives must exist.
  • Good news! There is an independent internet: Platforms are not the Internet and solutions can be found in independent creators (think Geocities, Neopets).
  • “Imagine if the only food you ate was fast food:” You don’t just eat McDonald’s, so why do you only use big tech? Users need to diversify tech usage. Think about how many apps you have made by humans you know. Try to make your own solutions as well.
  • “Prevent harms that anticipate negative reactions as opposed to trying  to put the cat back in the bag.”

Maurice Cherry, the host of Revision Path podcast, which features Black coders,  designers, and developers (celebrating its 6th anniversary!) then asked questions of both Matt and Anil.

  • Collective reckoning: There has been a large social awareness of media targeting after the 2016 election. It makes the work of measuring and thinking about impact much more apparent.
  • Tech boycotts don’t work: As Matt tells Maurice, “At the end of the day, I’m vegan, right you don’t have to be vegan but I am and I’m not having a milk boycott. It’s just not something I drink.” Everyone still uses these platforms. Some still might. However, use them less and build other options and practices. People, especially in vulnerable communities, still need to uses these platforms to get jobs, find opportunities, connect with family. The cost of disconnection is too high.
  • Inclusion, in workforce and stakeholdership, matters: How does a company like Snapchat go public without voting rights for shareholders? How do you hold folks accountable? Internal tech workforce organizing, especially of people of color, matters. Outside influence, like the “Delete Uber” campaign was “powerful enough that it cost Travis his job.” We need to have both economic and PR impact for real change to happen.
  • Each one, teach  one: This will make a difference if we just get our friends, family, and communities to care just one degree more to tip the  scale, and that’s all we can do to make real change in the world

Katie Harbath is the Public Policy Director of Global Elections at Facebook. As a long-time friend of Civic Hall and Personal Democracy Forum, she joined the group on stage give an insider look into what is happening at a Big Tech company to address these issues.

  • This is never going to stop: Facebook needs to be in a place where they are mitigating the bad, but still amplifying the good. That is why Facebook puts itself out there for feedback and critique, to do better.
  • How do you make a good partnership? Facebook wants to be active in taking and  ingesting feedback, but also providing information. This new breed of partnerships (like the one with Civic Hall and with other communities) haven’t existed before. How does Facebook figure out the best way to work with community members who have feedback?
  • How do we prepare for the next threat? Part of the challenge at Facebook is not just combating current problems like deep fakes, but “What is the problem that we haven’t seen yet, but the things we haven’t heard of?” Bad actors will keep  getting craftier.
  • External Reviews: Facebook has announced an external review board for certain decision-making around content moderation. They are going around the world right now trying to figure out the best format for this board, but also questioning how other organizations and companies handle these issues

Resources and citations mentioned in the talk:

  • Matt mentioned the Glass Room event that Tactical Tech hosted in NYC in 2016, which was a pop-up shop that showed visitors how they lived their lives online. It allowed you to see some of the data companies collect on you. Would you recognize it?
  • Diallo Shabazz asked a question from the audience about the inevitability of being plugged into the internet, that the difference between being online and offline will disappear, mentioning Ray Kurzweil’s excellent book “The Age of Spiritual Machines.”
  • Katie Harbath mentioned a Vanity Fair piece on Facebook’s content moderation, “Men are scum” which goes into the complexity of monitoring the platform for hate speech.  
  • Data Detox Kit from Tactical Tech mentioned by Matt is very useful! 
  • As Matt and Anil suggested, sign up for the Color of Change mailing list, which is a great organization taking on some of these big questions of race and inequality in the tech space. While you’re at it, follow their head, Rashad Robinson on social media.
  • The law mentioned several times that currently absolves platforms from being treated as publishers (and thus the legal responsibilities and liabilities that come with that, such as being responsible for what others post to the platform) is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
  • Organizations increasing representation in technology: Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code, Hack the Hood

There are many more resources and ideas mentioned in the talk, so take the time to check it out.